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Life in a border camp

Getting a firsthand look at an immigrant tent camp in Mexico

Life in a border camp

A man walks through an immigrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on Nov. 5 (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Last week I made a trip to McAllen and El Paso, Texas, to meet with U.S. Border Patrol agents. In McAllen I met an agent who’s been serving in Border Patrol for 18 years. He told me something that I think underscores the real crisis at our border: The human cost of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), aka the “Remain in Mexico” policy.

“I don’t let my kids go anywhere in Mexico,” the agent said. When I told him I was planning to go to Matamoros, the Mexican city just across the border from Brownsville, he shot me a look of concern: “You be careful out there in Matamoros.” He then pulled out a blank sheet of paper and sketched out a basic map of some of the cartel wars going on in Mexican border towns along the Rio Grande Valley.

Perhaps that’s why this agent says he isn’t particularly in favor of MPP. Under the policy, U.S. immigration officials send all asylum-seekers from Spanish-speaking countries back to Mexico to await their court proceedings. I’ve written about some of the consequences of MPP, including how it significantly affects the asylum-seeker’s due process in immigration court. And now here was a senior U.S. Border Patrol agent acknowledging that it is not safe in Mexico—the very place we’ve sent tens of thousands of asylum-seekers.

The U.S. Department of State’s own travel advisory webpage puts Matamoros’ home state of Tamaulipas under a “Level 4” warning, or “Do not travel.” It warns Americans of “violent crime, such as murder, armed robbery, carjacking, kidnapping, extortion, and sexual assault.” U.S. government employees are not allowed to travel between cities in Tamaulipas on interior Mexican highways due to the risk of armed criminal groups attacking public and private passenger buses.

I decided to follow the State Department’s advice for its employees. Instead of going deep into the interior as I sometimes do in Tijuana (a city under “Level 2” travel warning—“Exercise increased caution”), I stayed close to the border in Matamoros. Mainly, I just wanted to see for myself the conditions there, since our government has sent more than 11,000 asylum-seekers back to this city.

I didn’t need to travel far. Within a five-minute walk from the international bridge, I saw hundreds of tents pitched all over a public park near the Rio Grande. Many of these tents were covered with black garbage bags to protect from the rain. In this informal tent city, more than 1,200 people—mostly families from Central America returned to Mexico under MPP—live outdoors in the cold and heat. Some have court dates booked into next year.

Sophia Lee

The tent camp in Matamoros (Sophia Lee)

These camp residents say they prefer to stay near the border so they feel safer and have access to legal help. Staying close to the border makes it just a little easier for attorneys to travel to their clients, though the vast majority of these people will still never likely be able to find legal representation. Most immigration attorneys, because of the dangers in Matamoros and the logistical complications of representing someone living in another country under unstable conditions, understandably refuse to accept MPP clients.

Since they will be living outdoors for weeks and months, the camp residents try to make a home of it. They make ingenious makeshift kitchens out of tree branches, dead tree trunks, clay, even steel tubs from washers and fan covers. I watched as one woman made a giant stack of thick masa tortillas from a little clay-and-log stove over wood fire. It was near dinnertime, so people were boiling chicken, frying beans, and simmering rice. The whole camp smelled like an outdoor barbecue party, but it’s still not an appropriate place for kids to live, especially when temperatures drop to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or lower this winter, or when rain pours and thunder cracks. For food, clothing, and other necessities such as toilet paper and diapers, these folks depend almost entirely on American volunteers and nonprofit groups.

Sophia Lee

A woman at a makeshift kitchen in the Matamoros border camp (Sophia Lee)

The camp has no safe drinking water, so someone had donated giant water stations, from which people fill up empty milk jugs and plastic bottles. People wash their clothes and bathe in the Rio Grande, but the river is known to spawn bacteria such as E. coli, and once a headless human corpse drifted ashore. According to Doctors Without Borders, people in the camp experience health issues such as fevers, diarrhea, hypertension, diabetes, psychiatric issues, and asthma. Most of these patients are kids under the age of 15.

Families have become so desperate that some have sent their kids across the river by themselves, often with a note from the parents, knowing the U.S. government doesn’t apply MPP to unaccompanied kids. It’s an agonizing decision: Do they stay together and risk death or violence? Or send the kids to the United States alone and risk never seeing them again?

Sophia Lee

Children at the Matamoros camp (Sophia Lee)

I saw lots of children at the camp. Some cried and clung to their parents. Some ran around and stuck out their tongues at each other. Some dragged along toy trucks that Americans had donated. Some played soccer out on a field. Some simply sat and stared, looking lethargic.

As I walked around, a group of three kids waved at me and smiled. I waved back and said, “Hello, hello! Hola!” I squatted beside them and asked, “De dónde?

“Guatemala,” one pretty little girl said. She looked about 5 years old.

I pointed at the boy next to her, who looked about 3: “Y él?

“Guatemala,” she said.

I then pointed at the baby girl lying on her side between us, who looked about a year old: “Y la niña?

“Honduras,” she said.

The kids got tired of the boring adult questions. The girl pointed at a little doll that she had tucked between blankets—“Mira, mi bebé!”—and looked up at me smiling. In my eyes, the little girl looked like a baby herself, but unlike her well-cuddled Barbie, she had dirt smudged all over her face, arms, and legs.

The little boy shyly handed me a dust-caked, red plastic ball. I gently threw it back to him, but his reflex was a little slow, and the ball bounced off his chest and rolled down a little hill. As the Guatemalan girl ran after the ball, I touched the boy’s hand and noticed dirt clogged underneath his fingernails. Dirt was also smeared all over his face, mixed with the snot running down his nose. He wore no pants, just a lumpy diaper and an oversized blue T-shirt.

When the girl returned with the ball, I threw it again to the boy. This time he caught it, and his smile widened into a grin. Then with those same grimy hands, he reached into a bag of puffed wheat cereal, grabbed a handful, and stuffed it into his mouth. The girl too reached into the bag, and she offered a handful of cereal to me. I didn’t know what to do but accept, and as the kids watched me with expectant, happy faces, I felt I had no choice but to put the snack into my mouth and say, “Ooh, delicioso. Gracias!

Sophia Lee

Immigrants praying in the camp (Sophia Lee)

As I left the camp that evening, I saw a group of about three dozen people form a circle and sing, “Gracias, Señor” (“Thank you, Lord”), and then bow their heads to pray together. It’s a sight not uncommon at the border: Many of these asylum-seekers profess faith in Christ, and though their future is grim and their present circumstances terrible, they cling to faith in God as though it’s the only thing secure and trustworthy in their life right now.

I wish everyone could come down to these places and see with their own eyes these people affected by the Remain in Mexico policy. I wish you could see these little human beings shiver in the cold and wipe snot from their faces with their hands. I wish you could see the women smile at you as they flip tortillas over a self-made stove, doing their best to provide for their families. I wish you could see the men lift their toddlers up to their shoulders and kiss their daughters’ forehead. I wish you could meet that young Honduran man who, worried for my safety, promised to watch out for me while I walked around the camp—a beautiful irony of human kindness amid hardship.


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  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 11/28/2019 11:08 am

    God bless the human spirit for its patient endurance, faith, and hope. Thank-you, Sophia, for your portraits of our fellow human beings.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Fri, 11/29/2019 04:31 pm

    The parents put themselves and their children into this situation when they decided to make the trek to the border. Many of these refugees are economic immigrants rather than true refugees and our government is left in the unenviable position to decide who to allow into the country. The reality is that the people we allow into the country are a significant cost, where on average it is over $70,000 per refugee (5 years) for our federal, state  and local government - direct costs.  

    The costs on the infrastructure, such as water plants, and transportation systems, is another indirect cost. The cities become more congested making traffic jams more common, waisting time of the citizens and businesses. 


    There are cultural and political impacts such as students waiving the Mexican flag over the US flag.  The Democrats love nothing better than seeing racial divisions so the bringing in many new people from many countries helps fuel the divide where they claim to be the unifiers where all along they sew racial division to further their political objectives.   When we allow in many Muslims, many times they isolate themselves culturally and bring in anti-American ideology such as Sharia law with it's subjugation of women, hatred of Jews, advocation of Jihad and in some cases terrorism. Soros and other atheists hate Christianity so much that they want to see the influx of foreigners who will dilute our Christian heritage. Although, there may be some Christians coming in from Central American countries, studies have shown that the influx of foreigners brings in more  liberal voters causing us to move further to the left which can have drastic consequences when the elections are so tight. If we elect any of the current Democratic candidates, we will see our country quickly go bankrupt so that the good we do at present will be significantly offset by the bad that will follow with our country bankrupt and our own people starving. 

    There are further impacts on the poor in America, since the addition of low skilled workers causes the wages to be lower. Even if you put in a higher minimum wage fewer people are hired so it adversely impacts the working poor US citizens  creating more people dependent on our welfare system. 

    As I have stated before, there is a difference between the church and the state. The state has to judiciously decide what is the best for the citizens while at the same time helping refugees and immigrants where it can, but not forgetting it's first responsibility to promote justice for the citizens.  The church has a responsibility to help too, where American churches are oftentimes more interested in their million dollar facilities than serving the refugees and immigrants coming to their country or the Christians being persecuted abroad. Where are the Christians stepping up and finding ways to make a difference in Mexico without pushing some liberal agenda of open borders? Where are the "called Christians"?  The church needs to step up to help with the immigration issue.

  • JerryM
    Posted: Sun, 12/01/2019 04:49 am

    I am troubled by the argument Sophia is clearly making in this article.  It do not think it is the fault of the US government these asylum seekers are living in Mexico.  They chose to come to the place where they are living.  No one is guaranteed entry into any country.  Could they not have alternatively gone someplace else, if they felt the conditions in their home country were so bad?  Who brought them to the US border?

    Don't get me wrong I think we have a duty to care for the poor, the needy and the afflicted.  That does not mean bringing them to the US.  That does mean working in their country of origin to help bring societal transformation.  There is a sense of entitlement Sophia appears to be channeling.  One that ignores the daunting task of processing so many thousands of people claiming asylum, most of which, I understand, do not have legitimate grounds.

  •  West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Mon, 12/02/2019 02:06 am

    Re: Cyborg3 and JerryM--"Let them eat cake." And what will they do when the dam breaks?

    Keep on keeping on Sophia. Some of us are listening.

  • Cyborg3's picture
    Posted: Wed, 12/04/2019 07:07 am

    Taking the same logic, there are a lot of homeless on the West Coast.  Why don't you let them all come to your house - if you are Christian?  Do you think God would have any limits placed on the number? Or will you say to them "Let them eat cake!"?  If you placed a sign on your place, "All homeless welcomed!", how many people would be knocking at your door wanting to stay with you? With our broken immigration system, which the Democrats refuse to fix, we have a sign on our border saying, "All refugees welcomed if you say X, Y or Z to qualify."  The only reason we don't have more coming is because Trump took the action to shut the open borders and keep them in Mexico. As the people hear that they aren't just allowed in the numbers are dropping quickly of those making the trip - saving people's lives! Trump is also designating the drug cartels as terrorist groups which means we will be working with the Central American nations to battle the primary source of instability in the region.  This will stop many people from making the decision to become a refugee coming to our borders.  This is the right use of our government to fight injustice within the  neighboring countries close by.  It also allows the NGOs, including churches, to do their work of helping the poor and fatherless without the threat of these vicious gangs and the instability they bring. 

    Also, by having more immigrants and refugees coming to America you will find that we will rapidly become more liberal with all their hair brained ideas: free college, extreme taxation, free healthcare, shutdown of fossil fuels, hyper government regulation, and so much more insanity.  Our nation will become financially broke and we will see our great wealth squandered away affecting all Christians where they won't be able to support the many Christian mission works around the world. Global instability will reign with lawless dictators taking power around the world. This is the reason why Satan works so hard to bring our nation to ruin. He doesn't want us doing the good around the world! 

  • RM
    Posted: Thu, 12/05/2019 10:57 am

    While I can appreciate the human suffering focus, I find myself asking what these nations are doing to solve their own problems besides sending their people to the United States generation after generation.

    How can one nation that already accepts around one million legal immigrants annually be responsible for the continued failure of these other nations and expected to provide for their populations? I have read that the United States has already detained over 1% of Guatemala’s population and that around 3% of Guatemala’s population has fled from that country.  I also ask myself what these nations are doing with the foreign aid sent to them by the United States taxpayers.  Mexico alone received over eighty million dollars in 2018 the majority of which was dedicated to 'peace and security'.  As a taxpayer I’d like to see some Quid Pro Quo for those millions of tax dollars.