On the Border in Trump’s Twilight Zone for Migrants Where No One’s In Charge

Behind barbed wire, within view of Texas, 2,200 migrants live in a netherworld between U.S. and Mexican responsibility. No one’s in charge and amateurs are rushing in to help. Desperate conditions and an abiding despair are forcing awful choices. Some people think that’s the point. 

MATAMOROS, Mexico—In the year since the Trump Administration instituted the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as the Remain in Mexico policy, a sprawling encampment has grown in Matamoros, just a shout across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas. The people here are under the jurisdiction of the United States, although they sleep at the very edge of a country neither their own nor the one they seek. 

The camp exists between Mexican and U.S. authority and outside international law. It’s not an official refugee camp, though it certainly looks like one. Dozens of tents are pitched in rows on the tennis courts and soccer pitch of a city park and covered in black garbage bags to keep out the rain. 

A self-described redneck anarchist is managing logistics and operations.

Men lug plastic hardware-store buckets to collect water. They have built tables out of logs and the flat boards of shipping pallets lashed together with rope. Women pat masa into tortillas and cook on grills over wood fires (park trees chopped down for the purpose). 

The camp is a waiting room for the U.S. immigration courts, which operate out of a warren of white tents on the Texas side of the river. But the wait is long. Many have hearings set for March or April, five and six months after they first presented their asylum claims. 

The camp teems with children, young, skinny Central Americans with indigenous faces. On Feb. 1, UNICEF issued a statement saying the agency had begun developing places for the children to play, some basic health screening and organization of water and sanitation services. But these are minimal and belated. Migrants seeking asylum in the United States have been sleeping in Matamoros since July. 

In the absence of official international system management, social service workers, attorneys, activists, crisis junkies, Silicon Valley millionaires and organized and freelance do-gooders have filled the vacuum. Some have experience responding to crisis. Some have no idea what they are doing. No one is in charge. 

An Italian tourist is running a photography class for kids. A self-described redneck anarchist is managing logistics and operations: what to do with 100 camp stoves donated by a philanthropist, where to locate the garbage barrels a charity is buying. An evangelical pastor associated with Franklin Graham who runs a hip-hop church in Matamoros is helping organize a council of camp residents to make joint decisions. A clutch of acupuncturists is extolling the trauma-relieving properties of their art.

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