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Asylum-seekers at Matamoros tent camp brace for freezing conditions, new wave of migrants

Border Report

Unseasonably frigid temperatures hurting 'vulnerable' population, nun says

SAN JUAN, Texas (Border Report) — The number of migrants at an outdoor refugee encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, has swelled to over 1,000 as temperatures are expected to take a nosedive on Thursday evening, a Catholic nun who oversees volunteer services told Border Report.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the RGV, is seen on Feb. 11, 2021, at her offices in San Juan, Texas. (Border Report Photo/
Sandra Sanchez)

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said Thursday that she and other volunteers are especially worried that migrant families who are living in tents on the muddy and windy banks of the Rio Grande will be too exposed when temperatures along the border are expected to get near freezing late Thursday and Friday.

“We provide tents, jackets and blankets and everything that possibly can help them but we tell them the best way is to bundle up and be inside their tents that are freezing,” she said Thursday from her offices located in the small town of San Juan, an hour from the migrant camp.

She goes to the camp several times a week. On Wednesday, she helped families prepare for the cold by giving out plastic tarps for them to drape over their tents to help keep out the frigid Gulf Coast wind.

“It’s a tough time for them when the temperatures drop like they do tonight and tomorrow. The people there suffer a lot. They’re hurting. They’re super cold and we just hope they can keep themselves as warm as possible,” she said.

The people there suffer a lot. They’re hurting. They’re super cold and we just hope they can keep themselves as warm as possible.”

Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley

One little 3-year-old boy nicknamed “Chuyito” — short for Jesus Manuel — and his family from Guatemala were trying to shore up their flimsy tent home where Chuyito has lived for nearly two years, she said. Pimentel took a red remote-controlled car for him a few weeks ago and she says he is a little character who has stolen her heart along with the other children in the camp.

Migrants are seen on Jan. 17, 2020, at the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. Plastic tarps are placed over the tents to keep out cold and wind. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I want to make sure my presence there can reaffirm to them that we care about them. They’re not alone and that we’re hopeful for them and we’re speaking up in their defense so the new policies can be there to protect and offer them the proper care a human person deserves,” she said.

The unseasonably late cold snap is especially bad timing, she said, as more families have been drawn to the camp recently. There were just 500 in the camp at the time of the November election and the numbers have since doubled because they believe that the new Biden administration will lift travel restrictions and allow them to cross into the United States to make asylum claims.

A little boy steps through heavy mud on Dec. 29, 2019, in the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, on the banks of the Rio Grande. Snakes and rats are a problem in the exposed camp. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

On his first day in office, President Joe Biden rescinded an emergency declaration that Donald Trump had issued on the Southwest border. Biden has halted border wall construction, and has paused the “Remain in Mexico program, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), which is what had forced the majority of these migrants to live in these conditions in Matamoros during the duration of their U.S. immigration hearings. Some have been living in the filthy camp since the program was implemented in South Texas in July 2019.

But the COVID-19 pandemic halted all asylum hearings and since March has closed the border to travel. And for months, the migrants in the camp have been waiting for word on when courts will resume. Then last week it was reported by Border Report that many migrants arrested crossing illegally were being allowed to remain in the United States with the promise they will appear for future immigration court hearings.

That has been extremely hard for the families who have lived at the camp for so long to watch, Pimentel said.

“These are very difficult times for the immigrants at the refugee camp in Matamoros who have been there for quite a while — two years for many of them. This is a pivotal time. They are hopeful that things are changing but at the same time there are things happening and they are questioning ‘why not us? Why don’t we have the opportunity to enter like others are entering?’ So it does create some confusion and unrest,” she said.

A child living in the Matamoros refugee camp draw this sign for the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers asking to cross into the United States. (Courtesy Photo)

She said she has had numerous conversations with the Biden administration to educate and inform them on the camp conditions and to make suggestions on how to accommodate these asylum-seekers. She says she has told them these families should be considered first.

“They must consider the most vulnerable population that are waiting for so long. All these families that have been in the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, MPP, they should be of high priority because they are exposed to great danger and they need to be in the frontlines of the process once it starts,” she said.

On Tuesday, some of the camp refugees held a protest outside the encampment, according to social media posts by the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, which offers free classes to the children in the camp.

Brian Hastings is Chief Patrol Agent of the Rio Grande Valley Sector (Courtesy Photo)

Catholic Charities also runs the Humanitarian Respite Center, a migrant shelter in downtown McAllen, Texas, where released migrants can rest and get food and free clothing. Pimentel says that U.S. Border Patrol Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings of the Rio Grande Valley Sector visited the facility before the recent surge of releases of migrants by U.S. Border Patrol agents in South Texas. And she says that she and her staff are notified before agents release groups of migrants at the downtown bus station so they can pick them up, give them rapid COVID-19 tests and help them with their travel plans.

“Chief Hastings initially even before we had people released to us, he came to visit and we went to the Respite Center together and to see the facility and to see its capacity and his interest was to make sure we continue to have that relationship we’ve had in the past and continue working together,” she said.

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