By Laura Barros
Matamoros/Brownsville, May 11 (efe-epa).- While the distance from the Mexican city of Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas, can be measured in meters (yards), for migrants seeking asylum in the United States the journey is better expressed in units of time – weeks, if not months.
Their dream of a new beginning lies on the Brownsville side of the Gateway International Bridge, a narrow ribbon of concrete spanning the Rio Grande.
People going from Brownsville to Matamoros can walk across the bridge in a matter of minutes and enter Mexico without further adieu. But aside from Mexicans with the required documentation who cross the border regularly, it’s a different story for travelers moving in the opposite direction.
For asylum-seekers, the initial encounter with US immigration officials on Gateway Bridge is just a prelude to what can become a months-long odyssey thanks to US President Donald Trump’s decision to require those migrants to return to Mexico pending the processing of their applications.
Early one morning, with columns of smoke rising from the improvised wood-burning stoves dotting the encampment that has risen on the Mexican bank of the Rio Grande, Salvadoran migrant Carmen Amaya talked to Efe while cooking breakfast for herself, husband Pablo de Jesus Chavez and the couple’s four children.
The family shelter under three of the hundreds of tarps provided by the Mexican government as part of its effort to take care of the migrants turned back by the US under the “Remain in Mexico” initiative.
Visible from the camp are the two enormous tents erected in Brownsville to accommodate “virtual” court hearings on asylum applications.
On Jan. 25, 2019, the Mexican government agreed that the US could send asylum-seekers back to Mexico pending the processing of their applications.
Nearly 18 months later, tens of thousands of mainly Central American migrants are still on Mexican soil waiting for hearings.
Migrants sent back under Remain in Mexico are distributed among at least eight different cities in the border region, including Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Piedras Negras, Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros.
From her perspective in Matamoros, Carmen, 32, says the US seems as far away as when she and her family first set out from their native El Salvador.
“We are in the open air here, we are exposed to the elements. Here we endure rain, the wind, no? The cold, the low temperatures. Here the only thing we have to protect ourselves are these tarps. but it’s not 100 percent and the children get sick,” she tells Efe of the place the family has called home since Dec. 10.
Their first asylum hearing was Feb. 20 and a second is scheduled for June 3.
Carmen, Pablo and their kids fled Ilopango, a crime-ridden community near San Salvador, after a gang started pursuing the oldest daughter as a prospective girlfriend for one of its members.
Teachers at the 13-year-old’s school told Carmen that the girl’s grades were dropping and when questioned by her parents, she revealed that she was being harassed and bullied by the gang.
After making the long journey across Mexico, Pablo and the two girls made an initial attempt to enter the US while Carmen and the boys remained in Mexico.
Pablo and the daughters – the younger one is 4 – found themselves consigned to a “freezer,” the migrants’ name for the dank, unheated US detention centers, before deciding to return to Mexico.
Both of the girls got sick during their time in custody north of the border and their 6-year-old brother fractured an arm while playing in the camp in Matamoros.
Despite their uncertain prospects and the difficulty of their situation in Mexico, Carmen is adamant that going back to El Salvador is not an option.