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Migrant Crisis Is Moving South To Mexican Border Towns


The humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border has moved south. Only three months ago, migrant shelters in the U.S. were packed, and the Border Patrol said the agency was at the breaking point; now migrants are living in squalor in dangerous Mexican border towns. NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A month ago, if you came to the sun-blasted plaza in Matamoros, Mexico, at the foot of the International Bridge, it would have been full of asylum-seekers waiting to be let into America. They were haggard, but there was hope in their faces. Today they're still here, lying about dejectedly, seeking shade from the brutal summer heat, and they're gloomy about their fate.

MARLENE PAZ-OLIVA: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We're just waiting here for our court date, which is two months away, to see if we have luck with the judge," says Marlene Paz-Oliva. She's a shopkeeper from Honduras who says she fled extortionists. A Trump administration program known as Remain in Mexico was rolled out in the Rio Grande Valley last month. Families seeking asylum, who formerly had been released into the U.S. to await the outcome of their cases, are now being sent back to Mexico.

Paz-Oliva is living in this plaza, which she calls a griddle. Volunteers come by with food and water twice a day. Restless children are everywhere. She yells at her rambunctious 3-year-old Thiago...

PAZ-OLIVA: No, no.

BURNETT: ...Who is trying to scale a cement sculpture in the center of the plaza. A few yards away, a boy named Joahn (ph) sits on a sidewalk, clutching a cellphone and scowling. He's 4, and he can't understand why he can't go see his father in Austin, 350 miles away.

JOAHN AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

EDITH AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "He keeps asking me if we can go and see his papa," says his mother, Edith Aguilar. The family is in a predicament. Joahn's dad and his big brother left Honduras earlier this year and made it to Texas with no problem. So he told Edith and Joahn to follow them. But by the time they crossed the Rio Grande in a smuggler's raft two weeks ago, Remain in Mexico was already in force.

E AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: "We were so happy because we were finally in the United States," she says. "We didn't know anything about this new rule. They told us we'd have to go back to Mexico." At the moment, Edith and Joahn Aguilar plan to wait here amid squawking grackles and vehicle exhaust fumes for their appointment in immigration court. Proceedings are held by video hookup in a tent at the Brownsville border crossing.

The Associated Press is reporting at least 40,000 asylum-seekers are waiting in northern Mexican border cities to get into the United States. Matamoros has some 2,000 migrants, and it grows every day, as the Border Patrol orders them back to Mexico in long lines of 100 or more. The mayor of Matamoros, Mario Lopez, says all the shelters in his city are already full.

MARIO LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) We're ready for them to receive 1,000 or 2,000 more. If we have to, we'll open the convention center and house them there.

BURNETT: Lopez takes the long view. He's the fourth person in his family to serve as mayor of this historic border town, starting with his grandfather Don Alejandro Lopez a century ago. Matamoros has been an important border crossing since the creation of this international border 171 years ago. Lopez says it doesn't matter how tall they build the U.S. border wall or how restrictive the asylum rules become, illegal human traffic will not stop.

LOPEZ: (Through interpreter) It's like you tell your son, you can't go to the fiesta. And what does he do? He crawls out the window.

BURNETT: Immigrant advocates say more and more migrants are choosing to go home, rather than wait months for their day in court, where statistically the judge will likely reject their asylum plea. In 2018, 65% of asylum requests were denied. Glady Cana is a volunteer in Matamoros who helps migrants.

GLADY CANA: (Through interpreter) There are lots of people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who want to return. It's not because they're afraid to be here; it's because they've lost hope. I'm looking for donations to buy them bus tickets home.

BURNETT: The Trump administration has tried a number of ways to stop asylum-seekers, and recently, it's gotten an assist from Mexico. Security forces are stopping migrants from going north, and Mexico has agreed to let migrants stay there while their cases are pending. Remain in Mexico is so far one of Trump's successes, says Sara Pierce. She's a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. She points out the courts have stymied most of the administration's attempts to curtail asylum but not this one, at least not yet.

SARA PIERCE: The Migrant Protection Protocols are the one program that they've put forward that has the potential to really decrease the number of asylum-seeker approaching the southern border, if they're able to ramp it up sufficiently.

BURNETT: While the number of migrants waiting in Matamoros and other Mexican border cities continues to grow, across the river, shelters along the Texas border are reporting a commensurate drop. Catholic Charities, the largest shelter operator in the Rio Grande Valley, sees 300 new arrivals a day, down from 900, and the numbers keep declining.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.
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