Keeping up appearances: Asylum seekers on the US-Mexico border
Furniture making, housekeeping and makeup practice – people of Matamoros camp pass the time in the long wait for asylum.
Since the introduction of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – also known as “Remain in Mexico” policies – in 2019, asylum seekers hoping to enter the United States via the US-Mexico border must wait in Mexico for the duration of their US immigration court proceedings.
As a result of this policy, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers found themselves sleeping on the streets near the border. Gradually, a camp of around 3,000 to 4,000 people began to form on the banks of the Rio Grande river that separates the northern Mexican town of Matamoros from the Texan town of Brownsville.
Its inhabitants come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and – even though Mexicans are exempt from the MPP – Mexico.
With all court hearings suspended since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp’s residents have repeatedly had to present at the US border – waiting for hours in line with no ability to physically distance – only to be told to return a few weeks later. The closure of the courts means that Mexicans, too, must wait.
Since the pandemic began, thousands have abandoned the tent village. Many now live in apartments, often in squalid conditions. Others have paid smugglers to transport them to the US. Some have headed home.
Around 800 people remain in what is now a tightly policed camp enclosed by a tall razor-wire topped fence.
Here, some of the remaining residents share their stories:
Fernanda: ‘Happy, friendly and always smiling’
“Fernanda is always positive, happy, friendly and always smiling,” explains Fernanda, referring to herself in the third person as she squats on the edge of her camp bed with a thin foam topper that seems unlikely to make it any more comfortable.
Fernanda’s tent is in the middle of a row of tents under one of four large white domed roofs. The domes offer protection from the intense heat of the sun and the unforgiving rain. But some evening sun still manages to creep through a window in Fernanda’s tent, illuminating part of her face.
Fernanda left El Salvador seven months ago with a friend. Back then, she was “Fernando by day, Fernanda by night,” she explains.
Her mother and aunt, her closest relatives, were supportive of her being a woman but wider society was not, she says. To illustrate her point, she pulls out a printout of a BBC news article condemning three El Salvadorian police officers for the murder of one of Fernanda’s transgender friends, Camila Diaz.
“That’s why I need to go to America,” she says, “I want to live in an open-minded society where I can be myself.”
Fernanda’s smile disappears and her gaze drops to her chipped pink toenails as she recalls her journey to Matamoros. She travelled with other migrants and refugees for 27 hours in the back of a truck, she explains. The men in the truck started beating her and another transgender woman, shouting “You aren’t real women!”.
At some point, both women lost consciousness, but Fernanda was the first to come round. She threatened to scream until everyone in the truck was caught and that eventually brought an end to the attack.
She explains that maintaining her appearance as an elegant and stylish woman “keeps her self-esteem high and wards off depression”.
Like most 17-year-olds, Fernanda has a bedroom (in her case, a tent) that is an explosion of clothes and accessories. But her most prized possession is her makeup collection. She unrolls a professional-looking set of makeup brushes, each one resting neatly in its own pocket.
“How many brushes do you …”
“Twenty-four,” she blurts out before the question is finished.
She runs her fingers along the soft tips, smiles and says, “I can’t do anything without these.”
Jaido: ‘I love to make things’
A group of camp residents is sitting around a wooden bedframe made from old pallets that have been cut down to form slats and legs and nailed together. For want of sandpaper, Exeqil, a 44-year-old El Salvadoran, is attempting to smoothen the wood with the edge of a machete.
“It’s tough to make anything here,” says one of the men squatting by the bed. “We need tools, screws and an electric sander.” A man with a weathered face turns and proudly declares that he was given some screws and so has a more sophisticated bed in his tent. Would I like to see it, he asks, clearly keen to show off his work.
We walk through a row of tents that are housed under one of the white domes to tent number 85. He opens the zip to reveal a well-made bed – the sort you might expect to buy in a shop. It has an obvious upgrade on the one outside: instead of slats, the mattress sits on a flat wooden sheet.
Jaido, who came to Matamoros in the third caravan of 2019, is an electrician by trade. He installed the lights in the four domes here.
“I love to make things and hate to see waste,” he explains. Pointing to the trolleys parked around us, he adds: “I fixed all of those”. Most residents use the trolleys to collect potable water that a truck brings to the entrance of the camp.
As we continue the conversation, it turns out we are almost exactly the same age. He will turn 40 a couple of months before me. “But you look much younger,” he says, smiling to reveal two missing front teeth.
Like many residents, Jaido lives in a tent that is immaculate and organised to the point of obsession. “Is that something you learned here?” I ask him, immediately stereotyping him as a Central American man who is used to women doing the housework.
I see instantly from his expression that my assumption was wrong. Jaido gently corrects me. He and his wife shared the housework equally in Honduras, he explains. She stayed there, but he has maintained his attitude towards cleanliness here in the camp.
His theory is that women are not helping themselves when it comes to machismo in Central America.
“If a man creates a mess, the woman shouldn’t jump up and offer to clean it. Doing that is enabling the idea that women are only there to clean and maintain the house,” he reflects.
Jaido’s father once berated him for picking up a broom, saying “that’s women’s work”. But he does not believe that and wants to see a more equal society.
Equal is a word Jaido uses frequently, particularly in relation to his asylum application in the US. “I will never cross illegally,” he says. “I do not ever want to be anything other than equal with the law.”
Antonia: Effortlessly cool
Antonia sits on a chair in the shade outside her tent with a large Bible on her lap and a phone with a badly cracked screen perched on top. As she talks, her hands gesture excitedly, revealing a page in the Book of Jeremiah, a story in the Bible about exile.
Antonia has always been religious, but has strengthened that connection through her daily Bible readings to the women in the camp. Her enthusiasm is trance-inducing, making it hard to follow her excited arguments about religion and her path in life.
Despite the humid mid-90s heat (mid-30s in Celsius), Antonia looks effortlessly cool. She has a beautiful long flowing baby pink skirt that would not look out of place at the ballet, neither on the stage nor the stalls. Her turquoise earrings match her T-shirt and her hair is neatly piled into a high bun.
As we talk, the 40-something Honduran occasionally jumps up to collects buckets of water that she systematically pours onto the dirt around her tent using an old food container. Antonia swears that it is the only way to manage the dust.
She then sweeps the earth and instructs a neighbour to collect the dirt with a shovel. It is hard to say whether it is worth the effort, but maintaining their patch of land is something that most residents in the camp take seriously.
I ask Antonia if she always matches her earrings to her clothes. She becomes excited again and asks if I would like to see her collection before disappearing into her tent and returning with an eyeglasses case full of trinkets. She holds up a simple black hoop and says something that every earring-wearer can relate to: “These were my favourites … but I lost one of them.”
Despite living in a tent in the woods, Antonia continues to make a concerted effort to keep herself and her surroundings looking presentable. I find myself wondering if it has anything to do with her new boyfriend, Dison, who she met in Reynosa and with whom she now lives in the camp.
“Who made the first move?” I ask. “He did with words, but I made the first move,” she says smiling. I ask about their first date, which sets off an argument about what she cooked for him.
I tell them about the English expression “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach”. They look at each other and laugh; apparently in agreement.