Dignity Village, a collective of Brownsville-based nonprofit organizations aiding asylum seekers on both sides of the river, began to form in response to the Trump administration’s decision to meter the number of asylum claims processed daily at international bridges in 2018.
Locals who witnessed lines of impoverished families camping out on international bridges, in dangerous heat and with no food, water, or supplies, began prepping meals to cross daily. As the number of asylum seekers swelled, the operation expanded.
The government began sending vulnerable families back to Mexico in 2019. That’s when Team Brownsville, Resource Center Matamoros, Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, Catholic Charities, and Pastor Abraham Barberi began to coordinate sustained and dignified support for the growing encampment of tents past the Gateway International Bridge.
The U.S. government has provided no aid, security, or oversight as officials return those fleeing violence and poverty to the streets of Mexico. Aid workers have for over a year pushed back against efforts by officials in Matamoros to remove families and relocate the camp.
Some of the families have been living in tents well over 12 months. These families bear the Rio Grande Valley’s oppressive heat with no fans or air conditioning. The camp has no electricity or running water.
As COVID-19 swept into the Valley, the population of the camp — which at its peak housed an estimated 2,500 residents — is now at less than a thousand. And aid workers have been working nonstop from Brownsville and Matamoros to keep feeding, supporting, and advocating for the rights of those who have legally sought asylum at our southern border.
Team Brownsville is sustaining much of the collaborative work through its donations. Dignity Village rents numerous units at a storage facility near the B&M International Bridge. The idea was that supplies would be easier to cross from this location, but the pandemic has brought with it numerous challenges.
Organizers say that Mexican customs has been difficult and even hostile with aid workers bringing even small loads of supplies. Sometimes volunteers can’t cross at all, and officials have raised taxes on the items that are allowed through.
“We cross multiple times a week,” said Andrea Rudnik outside one of the storage units on a Saturday. Many of those crossing donations right now are winter Texans, Rudnik said. Volunteers in their 70s have been handling most of the work.
“We spend around $25,000 every time we order supplies and food from Matamoros. That’s every two weeks. It’s a lot of money,” she explained.
Team Brownsville’s storage units contain anything and everything needed to sustain human beings in the elements for months a time. There are diapers, baby bottles, toiletries, bug spray, sunscreen, razors, deodorant, soap, toothpaste, basic medication, blankets, shoes, clothes, tents, tarp, rope, hand sanitizer, and thousands of hand-sewn masks.
One storage unit is full of books and school supplies for Escuelita de la Banqueta, which during COVID has been taken over by mothers and grandmothers in the camp who have asked for supplies to educate their children.
Tents come in various sizes. They must be replaced every time inclement weather hits the camp — tents get wet, torn, and mold grows in the hot, humid air.
Many camp residents build and cook on clay stoves for which Pastor Barberi is picking up a truckload of kindling four times a week. It is still not enough.
Residents now have filtered water and DIY hand-washing stations, as well as port-a-potties sourced with the help of the Resource Center.
In a storage unit filled with children’s rain boots and school supplies, Rudnik sorted through a collection of bundles for newborn babies. In Matamoros, mothers must bring all supplies necessary to stay at the hospital. Asylum seeking mothers then bring newborns home to a tent.
Items like newborn diapers, pads, a baby outfit, toilet paper, and even an umbilical clip are some of the basic items needed for new mothers. And while organizers work hard to keep morale up in the camp from afar, some residents opt to leave behind the rugged conditions in an attempt to take back control of their lives.
“The first baby bag that we sent over — it was given to a particular person, a family that worked with our tiendas that we knew pretty well,” said Rudnik, showing a blurred photograph of the pregnant woman holding a bag in her hand.
“They crossed the river in the middle of the night last night. They’re actually some of the lucky ones, because they’re getting released by CBP (Customs and Border Protection,” she said.
The woman crossed the river pregnant. Doing so is incredibly dangerous even if not carrying a child, and organizers warn asylum seekers against trying. The current is strong.
Nonetheless, river crossings have allegedly been picking up as the shutdown of the asylum system continues and court hearings under the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program are postponed with no clear end in sight.
“People can die crossing,” Rudnik said last week. “It doesn’t always work out well. We hear stories about people being put in stash houses and getting extorted. You never know.”
Edwin Rodrigo Castro de la Parra, 20, from Guatemala, drowned in the river on Tuesday. Camp residents said he left to take a bath, approached the river, saw some pregnant women trying to cross, heard a scream, and then disappeared.
Aid workers suspect that he fell, and residents confirmed that he could not swim.