By Valerie Gonzalez, Staff writer
For a brief period Sunday, observant travelers returning from Matamoros through Brownsville’s Gateway International Bridge saw a briefly altered “Welcome to the United States” sign.
Atop one of its brick pillars, a man stood holding a sign that read “restore asylum, somos hermanos.” He was part of a protest calling for a renewed request to end the implementation of a controversial U.S. policy — a topic gaining momentum as Election Day nears. It’s a simple request, but the implications are also complex.
Sunday’s protest was attended by about seven people who banded together from San Antonio, McAllen and South Carolina.
Will McCorkle, a professor at College of Charleston, attended and said, “I don’t think a lot of the American public realizes the level of desperation that’s there” referring to Matamoros.
On the other side of the river, a mass of migrants, adults and children staying at the locked-in, makeshift migrant camp held their own protest.
“Vote intelligently. The U.S. deserves an intelligent president,” read one brightly colored poster held by an immigrant woman in the crowd. She stood on colorful steps that lead into the once-public Matamoros park. Its fences that were open to all now stand chained shut and dressed in concertina wire.
“No más MPP,” or “no more MPP,” shouted another man from behind the gates.
Protestors on both sides of the border are asking for an end to the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, the policy implemented December 2018 that sends asylum seekers back to Mexico to wait for their U.S. court hearings.
“To fix it, it’s going to be complicated and it’s going to take a lot of political will to do so,” McCorkle said acknowledging the considerable effort that would be needed to end the program.
The outcome of the election could change the course of the Republican administration’s policy, in which nearly 68,000 people were placed, according to Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse. About 25,000 have pending cases after the pandemic suspended activity in immigration courtrooms.
If elected, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would “end these policies, starting with Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols,” according to his immigration platform.
“All I know is that he is committed to ending MPP, but the devil is in the details,” U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville, said.
The global health crisis has negatively affected the health of the public and economy in the U.S. Those issues will take preference for whichever administration takes the reins in January, as discussed in every presidential debate leading up to the upcoming election.
“Because of that, I’m concerned that that is going to delay our ability to confront other things like MPP,” Vela said.
The policy is keeping thousands in makeshift camps along the border. In Matamoros, the regional delegate for the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, Enrique Maciel, estimates there are about 1,000 migrants living in the camp.
“It’s known that the federation pays a high cost for the rent of the equipment used to sustain the camp, though I can’t go into the specifics,” Maciel said. He explained that an amalgamation of nonprofit organizations are providing food, personal shelter, hygienic products and medical assistance.
For Maciel who is charged with overseeing migrant shelters in Matamoros, it’s not a matter of who is in the White House.
“I think that Mexico and the United States should create binational agreements where both countries should be contributing and paying for the sustenance of the people who they are processing,” he said.
“Local governments alone should not have to bear the responsibility of federal issues,” Brownsville City Manager Noel Bernal said.
Before the implementation of MPP, an influx of migrants released from CBP custody created a humanitarian crisis on the U.S. side.
In Brownsville, a shelter for the homeless was converted seemingly overnight into a migrant shelter. The Good Neighbor Settlement House saw their budget expand and a decrease in funding after that decision, according to then Executive Director Jack White.
The city allocated thousands to assist with the task of helping released asylum seekers find their way through the newly created network. That cost the city $399,704, according to Bernal. By now, they’ve been reimbursed $394,453.04.
In a statement, Bernal stated the city welcomes visitors from across the border and around the world.
He added, “The federal government should dedicate funding and resources to address issues that are federal responsibilities and offer resources and support to border communities to handle the effects of rolling out or removing such policies.”
Alternatives to handling asylum seekers, new and old strategies, are being proposed by more than 100 organizations that have compiled their recommendations over a series of nine months.
The 2021 Immigration Action Plan provides 10 actions with specific steps for immigration reform. The Texas Civil Rights Project, which has an office in the Rio Grande Valley, made their contribution.
“We have recommended through that process, and our partners agree with this, MPP should be shuttered,” Erin Thorn Vela, a staff attorney for the organization said. She added those in the program should be able “to present their asylum claims from a position from which they are not having to worry about homelessness, and the kinds of assaults, kidnapping and extortion they are often subjected to under MPP.”
Nonprofits like Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley will remain flexible to address the needs as they arise, assured Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director.
Since the number of migrants received at the respite center in McAllen dwindled from the hundreds to the single-digits, Pimentel said they’ve expanded their services to Matamoros. They collaborate with other NGOs to provide migrants with food, water, spiritual, medical and legal services.
Pimentel has devoted her life to helping people, regardless of the prevailing political party. She proposed the administration consider the Family Case Management Program, or FCMP, which was piloted in 2016 — the last year of the Obama administration.
Under the FCMP, 98% of the asylum seekers released into the country would show up to their court hearings. According to these Office of Inspector General findings in 2017, the taxpayer also paid less for this option which allowed the families to be released into the country rather than holding them in detention facilities.
Though the politics are not what matters to Pimentel, the outcome does.
“I hope people can recognize that the whole immigration crisis is really not a political one as much as it has been made political. It’s a human dignity that we must address and find solutions that address the good of humanity,” Pimentel said.