Reynosa, Mexico When * Albert, 36, and his 10-year-old son reached the United States border last week, they hoped their month-long journey with smugglers from Honduras would end in a happy reunion with Florida cousins who were ready to welcomed.
But after crossing the Rio Grande River to Texas, U.S. border patrol agents picked up Albert and his son, drove them to the bridge to Mexico and chased them.
“I lost everything on the trip here, I have nowhere to go,” said Albert, who asked Al Jazeera not to use his real name due to fears he could be identified by kidnappers carrying people across the US. -Mexico border prey.
Once in the Mexican border town of Reynosa – home to nearly one million people – Albert saw a square full of tents. Hundreds of families are camping out here, stranded by the closure of the U.S. border for asylum seekers since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They gave me a tent to sleep in,” he said as he stood in the muddy camp. “Last night everything got wet and I started crying.”
‘No place here’
Across Reynosa, crowds of mostly Central American or Haitian citizens live in camps, shelters or rental homes, waiting for the expiration of coronavirus-related curbs which enables the US to return most asylum seekers to its southern border with Mexico.
The build-up has created a humanitarian problem over the past six months – the Reynosa camp began to form around June – while the flow of people did not stop.
The number of arrivals at the southern US border is at a level invisible since the early 2000s, says Adam Isacson, who oversees the frontier of the research and advocacy group, the Washington Office on Latin America.
The boom was largely driven by people fleeing countries in Central America and Haiti amid numerous crises, Isacson told Al Jazeera, while others also hail from South America. Economic crises that have worsened due to COVID-19 and the relaxation of pandemic-related travel restrictions have also spurred migration in recent months.
But pandemic-related restrictions that block most U.S. asylum requests remain – and Mexican border cities are filling up.
“There’s no place for all these people to go around here,” said Felicia Rangel, volunteer co-director of the Sidewalk school for children asylum seekers, an organization that has been providing schooling to children on the Texas border since late 2019.
“Still, buses and pickups go on every day,” Rangel told Al Jazeera in an interview in her office across from the Reynosa camp.
In 2019, then-President Donald Trump introduced a program called the Migrant protection protocols (MPP), also known as “Stay in Mexico”.
The widely condemned policy has forced asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed in U.S. courts. Tens of thousands were sent back from Mexico to Mexico, where they built an expansive tent camp at the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico, and faced daily threats of violence, rape and other rights violations.
Last year, Trump also introduced what is known as Title 42, a policy that cited the potential spread of COVID-19 to ban most asylum seekers from entering the country.
While U.S. President Joe Biden released children from title 42 evictions, he left the policy in place for most single adults and families arriving at the border, saying it was necessary to stop the potential spread of the coronavirus.
But Gladis Molina, executive director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights in Chicago, said Title 42 “is really not a health issue, it’s an immigration deterrent.” Molina, who visited the Reynosa camp in November, said: “It’s a way to keep migrants out.”
It also remains in place despite the general lifting of pandemic restrictions and the opening of the US border to tourist trips last month. Molina said the Biden administration did not provide a timeline for when it plans to end Title 42 use.
“This policy must end,” Molina told Al Jazeera. “This is our number one issue.”
Restart ‘Stay in Mexico’
But even if Title 42 is lifted, other Trump-era rules will continue to make it difficult to reach the US.
Thursday, Mexico announced it has reached an agreement with Washington to resume MPP, the rule that requires asylum seekers to wait months in Mexico for their cases to be processed in the US. Although Biden tried to repeal the rule, a Texas court ordered the reinstatement in August.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said the program would resume on Dec. 6, with relocations to Mexico taking place at seven border crossings from California, Arizona and Texas, once MPP is fully operational again.
This means that the problems caused by the dire conditions at the border are likely to continue.
At the plaza in Reynosa, residents of the camp say the guard is made more difficult due to threats of illness and organized crime, among others. other dangers.
One man said he was detained with his seven-year-old son for two months. He said men with hoods beat him and sent videos of their attacks to his family to get a ransom of $ 10,000 from them. He and his son were released after the men received the payment, he said.
“We did not see the sun for two months,” he said. “The truth is I do not know how much more of this I can take.”
Threats of violence
The threat of violence has resulted in many parents sending their children across the bridge unaccompanied because they are not subject to Title 42 when traveling alone. Once they are in the US, they are taken into the custody of US authorities and then the families hope that they will be reunited with family members who are already in the country.
One couple at the camp in Reynosa said their 15-year-old son was beaten by cartel members while their 17-year-old daughter was threatened with sexual assault. When men tried to drag the girl out of the family’s tent one night, the parents said they decided to send them across the border to the US to try to find their grandmother in Georgia.
“Our great hope is to be with them again,” the mother said as she stood outside the tent where she still lives with her husband and the 9-year-old boy who was holding them back.
Thousands of children have been sent out of the camp in recent months, according to activists working in Reynosa. Meanwhile, local churches and voluntary organizations cater for the majority of the residents’ humanitarian needs, including untreated medical conditions.
Lourdes Gonzalez, a longtime advocate for the poor of Reynosa, told Al Jazeera she walks through the camp in the plaza every day in search of sick people. As she dodged laundry lines and sails for the past day, people gathered around her to ask questions.
“It happens every time we come. All the sick people are starting to come, ”said Gonzalez, a member of Angry Tias and Abuelas (Angry Aunts and Grandmothers), an activist association that assists people stranded in the Rio Grande Valley.
While Gonzales was standing in an open space between the pitched tents, a pregnant woman said she needed medication; an elderly woman complained she had no pills to control her blood sugar; a young girl said she had a fracture; and a mother said her young son was raped.
Suyapa Rosa, a 36-year-old doctor, was with Gonzalez while touring the camp. Rosa once worked at a hospital in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, but fled under threat of violence from gang members who she said threatened to kill her if she did not leave.
She crossed the Rio Grande with a large group and was transported back to Reynosa by American border agents in September. She spent two weeks at the camp before going to live and work at a nearby clinic and shelter run by the Angry Tias and Abuelas group.
“It’s a very bad situation here,” she said as she took notes on the medical conditions of people in the camp.
But despite the hardships that people experience in the Reynosa camp, many hold on to hope of one day to find protection in the US.
“I feel devastated, as if my life has taken a horrible turn,” said a 40-year-old former schoolteacher, who also did not give Al Jazeera her name. She said she crossed the Rio Grande River to the US with her 14-year-old daughter last month, but they were sent back to Mexico.
“We are waiting for the doors of the US to open,” she said. “Miracles happen.”