Volunteers open hearts and home to asylum-seekers
Tugging wagons loaded with chicken dinners, blankets, coats and shoes, Mike Benavides and his partner, Sergio Cordova, guided half a dozen volunteers across the bridge from Texas into one of Mexico’s most dangerous states.
They walked past Mexican customs and headed to a group of about two dozen migrants camping under tarps at the foot of the bridge. Days before, the volunteers had brought them the tarps.
It’s a routine repeated every evening as the volunteers enter Mexico to feed and clothe the stranded asylum-seekers.
U.S. customs officers stationed at the center of the bridge wave volunteers through but keep asylum-seekers from entering the country. Mexican immigration officials instruct the migrants to add their names to a waiting list that has now stretched to 80 people. Some had been waiting for more than a month.
The lucky ones would be allowed to cross the bridge, be held in immigration detention and then released at the bus station in Brownsville. There, some of the same volunteers would greet them with donated backpacks of supplies, breakfast tacos and help deciphering their bus tickets and court paperwork.
In a sense, it’s the new Ellis Island, but run by local volunteers.
“Sergio and I sometimes feel like we’re spitting on a bonfire. Shouldn’t they have the Red Cross or somebody over here?” said Benavides, 49. “But if we don’t do it, they go hungry.”
Asylum-seekers surged into Matamoros and surrounding Tamaulipas state even before a migrant caravan arrived in Tijuana last week. With attention focused on the caravan, asylum-seekers here say they’ve languished.
Tamaulipas is a perilous place to get stuck waiting. Drug cartel violence – kidnappings, disappearances, killings – has turned it into one of the most dangerous states in Mexico. Some of the U.S. volunteers like Cordova hadn’t crossed the bridge in more than a decade.
Now, Cordova said, it’s a daily mission. “If we’re not going to the bus station or the bridges, we’re sorting clothes. There’s no free time.”
He and Benavides started crossing to help the migrants after volunteering at the bus station in nearby McAllen in July. Separated due to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, migrants were being dropped off there by Immigration and Customs Enforcement with notices to appear in immigration court.
The next week, the couple posted a donation drive on Facebook, gathered items at Sam’s Club and began taking them to migrants at the Brownsville bus station and across the bridge in Matamoros. If migrants were sick, Benavides and Cordova picked up medication and took it to them. Before long, they rented an apartment near the border bridge for $440 where fellow volunteer Brendon Tucker, 23, started cooking the nightly dinners they deliver.