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The Children of Our Neglect: 17 Days in Matamoros
Now is the time to break the cycle of violence.
By Tracy L. Barnett Posted in Migration Americas on February 9, 2020
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A woman washes her family’s clothes in the Rio Grande as children watch from the bank. (Tracy L. Barnett, Jan. 2020)

MATAMOROS, Mexico — On the morning of New Year’s Eve, a woman named Angela stood ankle-deep in the Rio Grande, washing clothes — or as they call it on this side of the border, the Rio Bravo. Bravo means fierce in this context: A few paces from where Angela, a Salvadoran asylum seeker, was doing the day’s laundry, the current had swept a father and his infant daughter to their deaths last June. The river, I soon realized, was the perfect metaphor for the refugee camp that has sprung up along its banks. Peaceful on the surface, with terrifying currents underneath.

Angela was one of the nearly 60,000 asylum seekers returned to Mexico to wait for months for their hearings in this notoriously dangerous cartel zone stretching from Matamoros in the east to Tijuana in the west. And as the president trumpets his success in ending what he calls “catch and release” — the time-honored practice of allowing carefully vetted asylum seekers to remain with their sponsors in the US as they wait for their hearings — I reflect on 17 days in January that I spent with women like Angela, and some of the other victims of his “Remain in Mexico” policy, the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols.

I interviewed many of those families, along with some of the doctors, teachers, lawyers, religious sisters and other volunteers who’d crossed the border to serve them. I was there to report on the issue for several publications, and I wanted to know what it was like there in Matamoros, and why they’d made the decision to come — the volunteers, as well as those they served.

In Matamoros alone, between 2,500 and 3,000 individuals now live in a tent camp on the riverbank. Most are families with children. Similar encampments have appeared in other crime-ridden cities across the border. MPP returnees have reported at least 201 cases of kidnapping or attempted kidnapping of children and at least 816 reports of violence, including murder, torture, rape and kidnapping.

Across the street from the tent camp, an abandoned tourism kiosk flutters with the posters of missing people, and the words of their loved ones desperate to find them.

Across the street from the tent camp, an abandoned tourism kiosk flutters with the posters of missing people, and the words of their loved ones desperate to find them. (Tracy L. Barnett photo/January 2020)

Meanwhile, children play in the camp’s corridors, their parents gathering firewood, washing clothes, hanging them to dry on flowering bougainvillea bushes. Cooking on the elaborate ovens they’ve fashioned from the mud; picking up trash, sweeping packed dirt corridors between tents.

Estela and Leonora, 11 and 12, told me with startling clarity of the brutal crimes that drove their families from their homes. One saw a cousin hacked to pieces with a machete. The other narrowly escaped death when extortionists burned her family’s house down for not paying their protection payment. (I use pseudonyms here because girls and young women are at particular risk from cartels.)

I talked to José Inocente and his wife Esperanza (last names withheld). José had a welding shop in El Salvador until gangsters demanded exorbitant protection payments. When he protested, they said they’d be coming for his two sons. He grabbed his family and fled.

José Inocente Sanchez with wife Esperanza and their two sons, who later crossed the border as unaccompanied minors in hopes of being able to reach their family in New York. (Tracy L. Barnett, January 2020)

Jenny, a single mother from Honduras, was terrified when her 13-year-old son Evan came home with his face bloodied and bruised. The gangs told him he had two choices: join them, or die. She packed what she could carry, loaded Evan and his little brother on a bus and headed north. I would have done the same.

The stories go on and on. I heard dozens. Not from the violent criminals Trump likes to reference; but rather, their victims.

But why should we in the United States be responsible for their problems?

There are some strong reasons, and they go back generations. A review of U.S. policy in Latin America going back to my great-grandparents’ time reveals decision after decision at the highest levels of Democratic as well as Republican administrations that relentlessly brewed corruption, violence and chaos throughout the region.

But let’s just start with the 1980s, when nearly a million families from El Salvador and Guatemala, fleeing the U.S.-sponsored death squads in those countries, came to the US seeking asylum. Our government supported the dictatorships and death squads throughout Central America that sent those them here. Yet fewer than 3 percent of Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum claims were accepted in those years.

Fast forward to the early ’90s, when my daughter was Estela’s age. The children of those very same undocumented Salvadorans who had been denied asylum were easy prey for the terrifying Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs, who got their start in Los Angeles and recruited them heavily. U.S. law enforcement agencies’ efforts to break up the gangs by deporting its leaders ended up backfiring, spreading them like a plague across Central America — and back into the US.

Today my daughter is grown, with children of her own. I am a grandmother. And as I sat with these new asylum seekers, many of them the age of my daughter, I heard their pleas for a chance at a life for their children, far from the modern death squads who stalk their homes. And I realized: The violent thugs Trump is so fond of referencing are the children of our own neglect —and they are preying on thousands of families, including those now stranded at the border.

Among the questions that haunt me: What would have happened to the boys recruited by Maras if their families had received asylum? If instead of living in the shadows as undocumented immigrants, their parents had had a real chance at the American Dream they risked so much to achieve?

And what will happen to Evan, and to Estela and Leonora, if their families are denied asylum – which, under the current system, is likely? Just 187 of the 59,241 — or fewer than three-tenths of one percent — of the asylum seekers sent back under the MPP program had been approved as of the end of December, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University.

Before passage of the MPP, most of these families would have awaited their hearings in relatives’ homes in the US. We know that nearly all would have followed the legal process meticulously. According to TRAC, 9 out of 10 asylum seekers on the U.S. side attend 100 percent of their hearings. Among those with legal representation, it’s 99 percent.  

 That rate drops to half among those sent back to Mexico, reflecting the challenges they face: lack of legal representation; high violent victimization rates; and a failure to receive court notices are a few of the reasons cited. Their cases are closed in absentia.

My last day in Matamoros I saw Estela, who ran and embraced me, whispering into my ear: “Take me home with you. Then I could live in a house, and go to school.”

If we are truly concerned about the threat of violence from abroad, let’s look at its root causes. Let’s consider the cradle of violence that we are creating by offering a city-sized serving of red meat to the cartel sharks circling the asylum seeker camps along the border. If we don’t provide these families with the safety that is their right as asylum seekers, our own children, as well as theirs, will have to live with a more dangerous world.

Tracy L. Barnett is an independent writer based in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the founding editor of The Esperanza Project. A version of this article appeared in the Houston Chronicle.

Children play quietly in the Matamoros refugee camp (Tracy L. Barnett photo/January 2020)

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