Matamoros, Mexico is where the bodies of Oscar Alberto Martinez-Ramirez and his nearly 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, were found in June after drowning in an attempt to cross the Rio Grande, the river dividing Mexico and the United States.
A photo of their lifeless bodies laying by the riverbank lives on news sites and social media. Like many others, I was shocked when I first saw that image.
Martinez-Ramirez, along with his wife and their young daughter, traveled from El Salvador to Matamoros hoping to seek asylum in the United States. Reportedly, the family was not allowed to present their case to U.S. immigration officials and, after waiting two months in Mexico, grew frustrated and decided to cross the Rio Grande to reach American soil.
This month, when I was invited to follow a group of 10 Chicago-area immigration activists and a photographer to Brownsville, Texas, which sits just across the Rio Grande from Matamoros, I said “yes” right away. I wanted to check it out for myself.
The group, which included two immigration attorneys and four legal experts, crossed the border on each of two days to help migrants in Matamoros complete their asylum applications.
“I expect it to be very emotional, but I feel like it’s going to be a very good experience — also just being able to help and do as much as we can,” Annett Uriostegui said soon after landing in Brownsville. She’s with PASO-West Suburban Action Project, a group based in west suburban Melrose Park that provides advocacy and legal assistance to immigrants in the Chicago area.
“I know this is going to be a learning experience, a very heartbreaking experience,” said PASO’s legal director, Ambar Gonzalez, who grew up in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. “I just hope we have enough time to give them their tools — the tools that they need to defend their case.”
The situation in Matamoros has been worsening for hundreds of asylum seekers who have set up camp there by the foot of the bridge that connects the two border towns. This year, the Trump administration has made it nearly impossible for asylum seekers to wait in the United States while they process their asylum applications. Thousands have been sent back to dangerous border cities in Mexico, where crime is high and entire families are living in extreme poverty.
“I think for me it was important that if we were gonna come to do work here in the border that it was needed and productive and something that we could take back,” Mony Ruiz-Velasco said on our way to our hotel in Brownsville. She’s the executive director of PASO, an attorney and lead organizer of this trip.
Legal assistance on the Mexico side of the border is in high demand. The recent “remain in Mexico” immigration policy, formally known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), requires migrants to wait outside of the U.S. until their cases can be heard. This new policy was announced in December 2018 and has since been rolled out across the border. This year, according to news reports, more than 42,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico under the program.
“There are no U.S. immigration lawyers in Mexico that [migrants] can reach out to,” said Ruiz-Velasco, who lived in the area after law school. She partnered with local immigration attorney Jodi Goodwin, who has been busy over the last 16 months assisting asylum seekers at the border. Goodwin needs all the help she can get.
We met Goodwin the Friday before heading to Matamoros. She warned that it would be chaotic and unorganized, but no one had a real sense of what to expect the next day. Goodwin has a husky voice and a loud laugh. She’s an experienced attorney who’s dealt with the constant changes in immigration policies for years. Goodwin said this is the hardest work she’s ever done, “not because this is something outside of my capacity. But the human tragedy element that is thrown on top of it has made this truly the most soul-crushing work I’ve ever done.”
She told the group the situation for the migrants could change anytime. Mexican immigration authorities had been at the camp the day before telling families to leave the area, she said. “I don’t know what we would find. All the people that we were supposed to see, maybe they’ll be gone,” Goodwin said.
Once I set foot in the migrant plaza, I froze.
We crossed the Mexican immigration checkpoint that Saturday morning, and found a campsite on the other end of the bridge. The migrants are there. Dozens of tents are pitched one next to the other in a small plaza with a tiny broken fountain at its center. More tents are scattered at the outskirts of the area — but the farther away from the plaza, the riskier it gets, we were told.
From the moment we left Chicago, I’d been focused on the activists. I’d asked them about their expectations while recording every second — their anxieties about what awaited us in Mexico; their hopes about what could be accomplished once we got there; Goodwin making sure we all took a picture together right before crossing the border for the first time; the sound of the two wagons they packed with clipboards, asylum applications, folding chairs and water bottles.
But once I set foot in that plaza, I froze.
Soon after we arrived at the migrant camp, a wave of mixed emotions came rushing through. The heat was uncomfortable, my clothes were sticky, I was thirsty, overwhelmed by the crowd. The reports I read before this trip and the pictures I’d seen, suddenly were real, right in front of me.
From the campsite, I could see the bridge, the U.S. checkpoint, and people crossing back and forth. For a moment, I stared at a migrant cleaning her 7-month-old baby with a bottle of water. The baby is happy in her mother’s arms, unaware of the reality around her.
Entire families with infants, toddlers, women breastfeeding, children running around — all of them have been there for months — camping under extreme 90-plus-degree temperatures. Any bit of shade brought relief.
There was no running water, and there were just two portable bathrooms. Migrants washed their clothes and bathed in the Rio Grande, a few steps away from the camp. Just recently, according to a news report from Honduras, a young mother and her toddler met the same fate as Martinez-Ramirez and his young daughter, drowning in the river. In a separate incident, a teenager nearly drowned there, and others complained that contaminated water from the river was making their children sick.
Just like Goodwin predicted, she screamed from the top of her lungs to let the migrants know that the immigration experts from Chicago had arrived. She called out a few of them by their names and instructed them to wait in line. Goodwin, a white woman from Texas who speaks flawless Spanish, has come to know many of the migrants and their unique situations.
Around the same time we arrived, a group of volunteers began serving breakfast – the children ran to be first in line while Goodwin asked everyone to make some space for Ruiz-Velasco and her team.
I glanced at the people from the Chicago area, some were trying to find the shadiest spot to help migrants with their asylum applications.
Most of them were quiet, observant, perhaps overwhelmed.
I asked one of the activists, Elizabeth Kalmbach Clark, a litigation project coordinator at the National Immigration Justice Center, about her reaction to the situation.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to put it into words,” she told me.
For a moment there, I thought she wanted me to go away. I kept my distance. But then she found more words to express some of her thoughts.
“It’s pretty crazy to see this, like literally on the doorstep of the richest country of the world,” Kalmbach Clark said.
She paused. I could tell she was making an effort to speak.
“Coming into Mexico there was a sign that said, ‘pasale estas en tu casa,’ ” she continued. “It’s pretty ironic that it’s like, ‘welcome make yourself at home,’ coming one way and going back the other way you see this.”
Kalmbach Clark tells me she had read extensively about the MPP program and the situation at the border. “But it doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking,” she added.
An assembly line of legal assistance
Many of the migrants in the plaza were from Honduras, Cuba, El Salvador and Guatemala. With the help of pro-bono attorneys and legal assistants, Goodwin was helping them get ready for their virtual asylum hearings in temporary courts the Trump administration has built — one of them in Brownsville. Those courts began hearing cases in mid-September.
By setting up these temporary tents, the U.S. government is fulfilling its obligation of giving asylum seekers their time in court, while also keeping the migrants out of U.S. territory. This policy has been criticized by experts and challenged in court by asylum officers in the U.S. and civil rights groups.
Through video conferencing, immigration judges appear in court remotely. This setup makes it tough for immigration attorneys to assist migrants with their cases.
The “wait in Mexico” policy is pretty inconvenient for busy immigration attorneys with heavy caseloads when it comes to representing clients in a chaotic scene. “Not many people want to go into Mexico and meet their clients,” Goodwin said. “Not many people want to come down and figure out where do they go to court? In tents, in the building … to the city where the judge is, or what have you.”
Goodwin has been putting together an assembly line of legal assistants and pro-bono attorneys who are helping migrants both remotely and in person. The idea is to get asylum applications ready by the time the migrants are due to appear in court. Ruiz-Velasco’s team was one of the groups recently recruited.
During their visit, the crew from Chicago helped asylum seekers answer three important questions: “whether or not they’ve been harmed in the past in their home country; whether or not they were afraid of being harmed in the future; and whether or not they were afraid of torture,” Goodwin said.
Like Carlos, most of the migrants don’t speak any English and don’t know how to defend themselves in court. They need all the legal help they can get. Carlos, his wife and their 18-month old daughter, traveled all the way from Honduras. Their journey through Guatemala and Mexico was tedious and tiring, he said.
As he told his story, I could see his daughter playing with her mother in the distance.
In Honduras, Carlos explained, criminal groups demanded ransoms in exchange for safety. Families paid money to keep the criminals from harming them. When Carlos could no longer make payments, they opened fire on his family’s home. Carlos and his wife denounced the situation with local police. The police promised help and confidentiality, he said. But four days later, the same criminals broke into their home, pulled his daughter away from her mother’s arms and raped his wife. I take a second glance at his wife and child as he described the trauma his family now carries.
I am not using Carlos’ real name to protect his identity. He and his wife waited at the plaza for their date in immigration court. But their chances of getting asylum in the U.S. are grim — only a small fraction of applicants are granted asylum each year.
The situation is getting worse in Honduras under the threat of gangs like Mara Salvatruchas, a criminal gang with a strong presence in their home country.
“You wake one day and you hear about four, five people dead, [for] ‘extortion’ people say, or even for making a bad joke,” Carlos said. “They kill in front of anyone, but local officials don’t do anything. They take forever to arrive. They only show up to pick up the body.”
Recently, the U.S. has signed deals with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to accept migrants applying for asylum in the U.S.
The threat of violence
In Matamoros, migrants are also vulnerable to crime, extortion and violence. Some migrants say they’ve been scammed by immigration attorneys in Mexico who charge families steep fees to get them out of Mexican detention centers. Migrants on their way to the U.S.-Mexico border can be detained, if they’re caught without proper travel documentation or permits required to stay in Mexico.
Historically, Matamoros has been a violent place. Migrants have been the target of armed criminal groups, mostly outside of the migrant camp. The area has been known for high kidnapping rates and other serious crimes including murder, sexual assault and armed robbery.
Along the riverbank, near the campsite, a group of migrants from Cuba said even locals in the area have told them to stay within the camp boundaries. “They tell us during the day it may be okay, but in the evening, you stay there,” said an older man.
The Cuban migrants shared the recent stories of a girl who almost got kidnapped and a man who was beaten up badly during a time when drug cartel members demanded money.
“I am afraid to be in Mexico,” said a 16-year-old boy, who’d left Cuba with his father and older brother months ago. They said the lack of employment, the tight government control and the dangers they faced for voicing their disagreement with Cuba’s rooted Communist party forced them out of their home country.
Some said they traveled from Cuba to Nigaragua and then crossed through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Their final destination — the United States — was just a few feet away from where they stood. They could see it across the river.
But they told me that they’d exhausted their resources. “We leave with a sweet and juicy sugar cane in our hands, but by the time we arrive it’s been drained. There is no more juice,” said the 16-year-old boy, who dreams of pursuing a career in finance if he makes it to the U.S.
They asked me not to share their names out of fear of retaliation back home, in the event that they get sent back to Cuba. They said going back voluntarily is not an option for anyone.
The sidewalk school
Every week, school teachers from Brownsville push wagons across the border filled with school supplies, including notebooks and coloring pens. The migrant children wait for them every Sunday.
Children of all ages, literally, sat on the sidewalk while the sun hit everyone on their faces. For about an hour, they got a snippet of what it’s like to be in a classroom.
I spotted a volunteer fighting back tears as she distributed supplies. Other volunteers helped kids with their assignments — the children had to draw their family members.
Some kids were more engaged than others. There were too many distractions. While the children tried to listen for instructions, a few steps away, volunteers distributed food and water. Some mothers followed their kids making sure they got to eat while others tried to secure two or three bottles of water. Goodwin walked around with a clipboard and a pen directing migrants to where the Chicago-area activists were stationed — listening to asylum seekers, taking notes.
“Last week, I gave a lesson on the globe, and I try to teach them the seven continents in English and Spanish,” said Juan David Lucio, a special education teacher with the Brownsville Independent School District. “We try to locate the countries that they came from. We are trying to teach them a little bit of English to keep their hopes alive. We are here to keep their dreams alive, so that they can continue.”
Every weekend, Lucio crosses the border with a group of volunteers, including his wife. Several groups in the Brownsville area are at the forefront of the humanitarian efforts including Team Brownsville and Angry Tias and Abuelas, which translates in English to “ Angry Aunts and Grandmothers.”
The living conditions in the migrant camp take a harder toll on children — many of which are infants and toddlers. Any humanitarian effort makes a huge difference, but without a source of income, many migrants depend on food donations to feed their children.
Maricela, her husband and two children had been at the camp for about a month when I interviewed her. She and her family are migrants from El Salvador. They fled their home country to escape violence and extortion also from the Mara Salvatruchas, the largest gang in her country.
Maricela’s son lost his appetite during the six days they were detained in a migrant detention center in Brownsville. That’s where the 7-year-old began losing weight. “He didn’t want to eat anything,” Maricela said. And his situation worsened after being released and sent back to Mexico. “Here he got sick with diarrhea and vomiting. He was dehydrated,” she said. A couple of volunteers helped her get medicine for her son.
I glanced quickly at Maricela’s son, he looked malnourished. I thought of my own son and how worried I get when he refuses to eat. With that in mind, I asked her, “can you explain to others what’s it like for a mother to see her son starve for days?” She took a long pause before answering — the type of pause you take when you know you are about to burst into tears. I pause, too, fighting back my own.
“It was a nightmare to be in that cell and see that my son wasn’t eating,” Maricela said, crying. “Many children are sick here. We are forced to bathe them by the river that gives them skin rashes. The children are suffering.”
“Do I even want to eat right now?”
The stories told by each of the migrants were complicated, nuanced and unique. Yet, they all carried a common theme — a fight for survival.
The visitors from Chicago, including myself, listened to the migrants for hours that weekend. Eventually, I got used to the heat and discomfort. I memorized some of the migrants’ names and said “hi” to them in passing.
I still remember Ramon from Cuba. When I talked to him Saturday, he was full of hope. He’d left his child behind in Cuba. His plan was to send for him once he’d settled in the United States. But the following day, he was a different man. He looked tired and defeated. He had just gotten off the phone with his son. As he looked up to the bridge that kept him from realizing his dream, Ramon told me he missed his son.
I recorded every second. I listened in awe, thinking about what’s at stake for these families. All of them were taking huge risks at the slight chance of changing the course of their lives.
The hardest of hours for me throughout my assignment came during lunch time. On both days, we ate at a nearby restaurant called Garcias’. Located inside a strip mall on a corner building with big tall windows overlooking the plaza, the restaurant offered three-course meals — a salad bar, main dish and dessert — aside from the chips and salsa. It had air conditioning with soft Latin jazz music playing in the background.
Garcias’ has been a favorite among Brownsville residents, who drive across the border to eat there. The restaurant has been there for decades, long before the migrants set camp by the plaza.
There aren’t many other restaurants nearby, and further into downtown Matamoros could be dangerous. For us, it was the closest and the safest option. I ordered stuffed peppers. It’s one of my favorite Mexican dishes. But when I sat down at the table, I thought of the three-year-old boy hiding a cooked egg in his pocket and the woman washing off her baby with a bottle of water.
I struggled to bring the fork closer to the plate in front of me.
I wanted to either bring everyone from the camp into the restaurant or skip lunch all together and go back to the plaza.
I kept the anxiety to myself. But later, I found that I wasn’t alone. The restaurant had become a metaphor for the disparity at play in front of us — some of the activists were feeling it.
“A part of me felt like, do I even want to eat right now?” said Annett Uriostegui, the daughter of immigrants from Mexico. “I felt super privileged and super emotional, in a way. In the U.S., we take everything for granted when there are situations like this. … It’s so heartbreaking.”
When we crossed the bridge from Matamoros to the U.S. for the very last time, I saw one of the activists, Jessica Arellano, staring back at the migrants through a fence. She cried and waved goodbye. Arellano, who grew up in northwest suburban Wheeling, is an immigration specialist with PASO.
Later, as we sat in the Brownsville airport awaiting our flight back to Chicago, I asked her to explain how she felt in that moment.
“It was just a rush of emotions that I think I was holding in over the last two days,” said Arellano, whose parents also came from Mexico. After her last day at the camp, she told Uriostegui, “Hey, we have to go to law school because after seeing all of this, it makes me want to do more.”
The images of Martinez-Ramirez, the father who drowned with his toddler, Valeria, stayed in my head. Now, I have the images of the migrants at the camp. But it’s different. These images are alive — they move, they laugh, they cry. I still hear their anguish, their frustration, their empty hopes.
For two days in Matamoros, I was a bystander. But a month later, the sounds of toddlers playing on the sidewalk, the prayers coming out of the tents, the sight of Ramon’s quiet face staring hopelessly at the bridge — have kept me up at night.