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My Coworker Lives in a Tent
The American Dream turned nightmare on the Mexican border
By Nathan Boddy Posted in Migration Americas on January 31, 2020
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I met Nathan Boddy and his wife, Dr. Johanna Dreiling, on a recent trip to Matamoros, Mexico, on the border with Brownsville, Texas. I was there to report on the surge of grassroots volunteers responding to the crisis in the absence of a government or major NGO response. Dr. Johanna was working at the camp clinic alongside other volunteers and another asylum seeker who has been waiting for months for his hearing, along with an estimated 59,000 other asylum seekers returned to Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy: Dr. Dairon Elisondo, who happens to be a family practice physician. I also met “Josefina,” who gave me permission to share her story in these pages. A small bright spot is that since Nathan’s writing of this first-person account of his time on the border, Josefina has been able to earn a small stipend for her work as a medical translator so she could move to a rundown apartment building near the camp along with other members of the medical staff and teachers of the Sidewalk School. And the wait continues.

So much for the “American Dream.”

Matamoros tent camp. Nathan Boddy photo

My coworker is living in a tent. Her “neighborhood” is a refugee camp of migrants clustered along the south banks of the Rio Grande River. She could throw a rock into the U.S. if there were any to throw (most of the rocks have been used to secure tarps, or to build rudimentary windbreaks for fires). I find it incongruous that for me, a good morning is as simple as some huevos rancheros before crossing the bridge. For her, a good morning means she’s survived another night without violence or kidnapping. This is not hyperbole. The ‘wolves’ hunt this camp regularly. Two nights ago, a black SUV approached some young ladies on the perimeter of the encampment with the promise of “work”. The girls narrowly escaped being grabbed when the door opened and one of the occupants made the lunge.

I am a U.S. citizen who has been suffering disgust with the current U.S. Administration. My wife and I have been traveling the country with our children, but long before leaving our Montana home, we knew we’d be spending time volunteering along the U.S. Mexico border. We served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala and have skills to offer in this migrant camp. My wife is a doctor and spends her time in a medical tent. My work has been varied between construction, translation and medical intake.

My coworker, I’ll call her Josefina, is also a working volunteer. Josefina, however, is not a U.S. citizen. Her husband and children are American citizens and connections like that make her ripe for extortion, thus the reason for changing her name. Mexican drug cartels target their victims and assume that people with U.S. connections will be able to pay ransom. After two decades of building a life in the United States, she made the mistake of returning to her native Honduras. She’d received some very ill-informed legal advice about the procedure she’d need to follow for citizenship and traveled south to do it. It was a mistake that she’s regretted every day since. At the United States Embassy in her home country, she was told that her application was missing one piece of paperwork and she was summarily denied entry. Now she’s keeping her head low and, like the other two thousand people in the camp, waiting for her nightmare to end.

Each morning as I cross the international bridge, I am greeted by wood smoke. Even before I’ve stepped into Mexico, I can smell it rising from cooking fires, the odor as thick as any Central American village. It’s appropriate that I would think of Central America, since most of the people within this camp are from Central America, more than a thousand miles away. Instead of thatch huts and footpaths through verdant hills, however, this village is comprised of hundreds of tents and informally constructed shelters that crowd the sidewalks and park spaces, pushing against the fences that define the Mexican side of the international bridge. This place, and many more like it, are acting as the de facto wall that Donald Trump promised to build.

There is a large body of good journalism about the situation along the U.S. Mexico border. In case you’ve missed it: the Trump Administration is actively stiff-arming immigrants. This began with Donald’s first months in office and the Muslim Travel Ban, soon to be followed by child-separation policies and now the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program, otherwise known by its official acronym MPP for ‘Migrant Protection Protocols’. None of these actions should come as a surprise from a man who campaigned on the asinine proposal of building a “great, great wall on our southern border.” I can only assume that his vindictive actions are his childish reactions to not getting his way with a physical barrier that he could adorn with his gold-plated surname. He’s throwing a tantrum, if you will.

The MPP program specifically deals with asylum. It’s worth slowing down for a moment here to consider just that: asylum. These are not habitual lawbreakers, voyeuristic youth or groups of young men out looking for riches. That does happen, of course, but overall these are people following the rules and desperately seeking protection. People do not uproot families, traditions and entire lives to make a desperate scramble across hundred of dangerous miles just for the thrill. For many of these people the options were literally life or death. From rural families in Guerrero, Mexico who are being forced to work without pay to harvest Cartel owned avocado crops, to boys as young as twelve being conscripted into gangs on the streets of El Salvador and Honduras. The tragic stories roll northward daily.

During my work across the border, I’ve heard many stories. Every migrant has one and many share them freely, but asking can sometimes feel strange. Do people generally want to share when they’ve experienced gut-wrenching tragedy? One woman did, and her words are now seared into my mind. She fled from gang violence in Honduras with her entire family, which included her two twin boys. She was desperate to find help, someone who could address the psychological damage that had been done to one of the twins.

Little Josué looked at me with beautiful brown eyes and an expression that I can only describe as broken and hollow. His mother explained that he had been kidnapped and held for several days. I cannot wrap my mind around the immensity of horror that the family has lived through: their precious child being used as a pawn by violent, organized crime. I did not ask, but I’m sure they threw every cent they were able toward his release. How could they have survived the fear and horror? How did they feel upon his return when they found that the soles of his feet had been intentionally burned? Most importantly, who are the monsters that could do such a thing to a four-year-old child?

The monsters, of course, are the very reason people are flooding out of Central America and specific parts of Mexico to seek asylum in the United States. Prior to MPP, asylum seekers could enter the U.S., even by sneaking in, and subsequently make the claim that they needed protection. They would then be released into the United States and given a court date for a hearing to determine whether asylum would be granted. Under MPP migrants now must await their hearings while staying outside the U.S.

Here’s the rub:

The MPP or the “Remain in Mexico” program effectively means that asylum seekers have little option other than to wait in places like Tamaulipas, a Mexican state so dangerous that the U.S. State Department warns American citizens “Do Not Travel”. Few other locations get this distinction. Among them are Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. The same elements that have given rise to the lawlessness of Central America (drugs, corruption and organized crime), are being fueled by the actions of drug cartels in Mexico, and demand for the drugs in the United States. It just so happens that the competition for power and control takes place primarily in northern Mexico.

Migrants arriving here have already run a treacherous gauntlet in order to reach the United States, but here in the final paces of the game they find themselves bottled up, en masse at one of the most dangerous intersections on the border. Here in Northern Mexico, they are sheep with nowhere to run. Many have little or no means to return to their home countries, even if they wanted to. Furthermore, their asylum hearings are scheduled to take place at various points of entry along the U.S. southern border, which means they dare not step southward. They will not find legal work in Mexico because ‘employment’ of this kind will automatically nullify their case for asylum in the U.S. At the very least, they are seen by native Mexicans as an unwanted symbol of the ongoing drug war violence that has gutted the security and economy of numerous Mexican border towns. At the worst they are seen as easy pickings for the cartel scum that pray upon them. They’ve gone from the frying pan and into the fire.

A child picks her way among the tents set up in front of the Mexican immigration office at the edge of the sprawling tent camp of asylum seekers on the Mexican border in Matamoros. An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people are living there, mostly families with their children. (Tracy L. Barnett photo)

My heart aches for their ongoing trial. MPP has attempted to hide the outcomes of ongoing “nation building” and a failed war on drugs. These migrants are the victims of our policies, and MPP would have us believe that their plight is nothing more than a selfish “invasion” of our country. It is, in fact, desperation that we would all share if we were in their shoes.

One afternoon during my work in the camp, a rumor spread. Within minutes entire swaths of the camp had the misinformed notion that the border was going to be opened. Having lived in Central America, I can attest that a rumor like that might seem entirely logical to a society accustomed to bureaucratic bumbling and inefficiency. I waited with nervous apprehension to see the other shoe drop. There was a rush of people gathering armloads of things and charging toward the bridge. People hollered out for their spouses and children to ‘hurry up’. Other groups shared words, doubt and hopes before scattering. In less than fifteen minutes it was over, the rumor exposed for what it had been: misinformation borne out of desperation and hope. Remain in Mexico.

On that same afternoon, a young lady approached Josefina and they stood apart for a while visiting in hushed tones. After a long and emotional embrace, the young lady turned and disappeared through the maze of laundry lines and plastic tarps. Josefina explained to me that she and the younger lady had been apprehended together during her first attempt to cross in search of asylum. They’d been together through some stressful times in a large detention and processing center. Sleeping on a hard floor together can apparently build coalitions between strangers.

Josefina explained to me that the younger lady had had enough and was going to leave that very night to attempt another crossing. This meant putting herself as the mercy of human smugglers who would bring her into the darkness of night somewhere along the river. Statistics show that her night could easily end in rape, robbery and even death. If caught by U.S. Border Patrol, she would surely lose any hope at ever receiving legal asylum. Nonetheless, the young lady was willing to take the risk. Desperation could make criminals or victims out of even the best of us.

Twice I brought my two young boys to work with me in Mexico. I felt it important that they be there to see this point in our nation’s history, even if it’s not occurring on our soil. I was glad to see them play with other children in the camp and I fully realize that their impact in the migrant camp might be greater than my own. Children their own age were seeing that not all Americans are standing with arms crossed in defiance and refusal at the suffering of others. I told my boys that our country was built on the enthusiasm, creativity and motivation of people from all over the world. It was a positive message that I hope will stick with them more than the fearmongering of Donald Trump. During one sunny afternoon I set a table with pencils, crayon and a stack of blank paper. I gave my boys some math problems to tackle and before long there were at least eight children at the table doing the same. I’ll admit that teaching multiplication and division in Spanish might have been more confusing to the children than it was a help, so I was relieved when several kids asked if they could just color instead.

Half an hour later one young girl from El Salvador who’d been particularly bright with her math problems, approached me with a sheet of paper. Upon it she’d colored a scene that was easily distinguishable as a grass-lined beach and blue ocean water filled with sea creatures. What struck me most were the structures at the center of the picture: a swing set and monkey bars. She thanked me for teaching her, gave me the picture and disappeared with the others.

When I was a kid, I remember vomiting into a Tupperware container while in the back seat of my family’s Toyota Corolla on the ‘Going to the Sun Highway’ in Glacier National Park. (I’d been given free access to doughnuts that morning and curvy roads never sat well with me.) I recall the radio was playing Neil Diamond’s “America.” Lost among my retching were the words about “only wanting to be free… we huddle close… hang on to a dream.” I do, however, recall the refrain over and over, “They’re coming to America!” Between my heaving and sweating brow, I remember feeling like the anthem was one of strength and optimism.

When did we change? When did we stop seeing immigrants as the symbol of progress and hope that they are? When did we forget that the cutting edge that made America who we are was honed upon the resolve of those many people who were “Yearning to breathe Free?”

I ask myself these questions every night as I lay down to sleep in a warm bed less than a mile from where thousands of people wonder how many more days they can survive. I think about Josefina’s husband and children. What will the social impact upon this family be, having lost a wife and mother? I think about the young boy with torture wounds on his feet and wonder why we are so unwilling to see these people as human beings in dire and sincere need? Lastly, I think about that young girl from El Salvador. When will we understand the need to protect a child that wants nothing more than a playground? A simple, sunny playground to remind herself that she is worth more than just waiting.

A native of western Montana, Nathan Boddy’s love of geography has introduced him to wonderful discoveries.  He is currently traveling the country with his wife and two children in a converted school bus.

asylum seekers Matamoros Migrant Protection Protocols refugees Remain in Mexico Policy

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  1. Nathan, what a beautifully written witness!! I loved reading it! It’s been almost a lifetime since I’ve seen you, but you have never been too far from our thoughts as we are able, not often enough, to visit and see your parents! Am so deeply grateful you and Johanna are doing the work, with your family, you are doing. We have said for decades that when we are finally able to retire, we want to help in some way on the border, or in areas hit by disaster. Thenk you for keeping that dream alive for us!
    Aunt Gay & Uncle Louie