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‘We have to keep fighting’: Asylum seekers at US-Mexico border

Since the introduction of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) – also known as “Remain in Mexico” – in 2019, asylum seekers seeking to enter the US via the US-Mexico border must wait in Mexico for the duration of their US immigration court proceedings.

As a result of this policy, thousands of migrants and asylum seekers found themselves sleeping on the streets near the border. Gradually, a camp of approximately 3,000 to 4,000 people began to form on the banks of the River Grande that separates the northern Mexican town of Matamoros from the Texan town of Brownsville.

Its inhabitants come from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cuba, Haiti, Venezuela and – even though Mexicans are exempt from the MPP – Mexico.

With all court hearings suspended since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp’s residents have repeatedly had to present at the US border – waiting for hours in line with no ability to physically distance – only to be told to return a few weeks later. The closure of the courts means that Mexicans, too, must wait.

Some have crossed into the US, hoping to live undetected by the immigration authorities, others have moved into apartments near the camp. Some have risked returning home. “If I’m going to die, I at least want to die in my own country” is an expression commonly heard here.

Some 800 people remain in what is now a tightly policed camp enclosed by a tall razor-wire topped fence.

Here, some of the remaining residents discuss life in the camp and what the US elections may mean for them:

Dison, 53, from Honduras: ‘We all want Biden to win’

Dison says he would never want to cross into the US illegally [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

Dison is a born leader. He has an imposing presence, a calm voice that quietly commands respect and the sort of mischief in his eyes that suggests he has a private joke running through his mind. His partner, Antonia, points out: “It’s his eyes. I fell for him when I first saw his eyes.”

In Honduras, Dison was a spiritual leader, although he now lives with Antonia in the camp in Matamoros, admittedly in one of its more sophisticated structures. Sitting on a makeshift porch with plastic lining on the floor to provide a space for children to play, he smiles and dismisses a question about his age, although he later confesses to being 53.

Like most residents of the camp, Dison lives in a tent, but he has built a wooden structure, lined with tarpaulin, the size of a double garage. It gives the sense that the tents were erected inside a home, for fun rather than need.

When asked what he has learned from his experience in the camp, Dison answers simply: “The value of life.”

Bodies are sometimes found in the River Grande, which runs alongside the camp, separating Mexico from the US. At least one of those bodies belonged to a camp resident, 20-year-old Guatemalan Edwin Rodrigo Castro de la Parra who was found in August.

While the official cause of death is usually cited as drowning, residents in the camp know not to cross the river without paying the gangs who control it.

“Would you ever want to pay to cross illegally?” I ask Dison.

“Never,” he says definitively. “What’s the point?”

“I want to start a business, I want to pay taxes and be free to earn as much as I can. If I crossed illegally I would be in the same position as I was in Honduras with no bank account, no ability to buy a house, nothing like that.”

The conversation moves naturally to the US elections. “We all want Biden to win,” he says. “He will be good for America. The US needs a capable man and Joe Biden appears to be backed up by people who are conscious of previous mistakes made by Obama. Everything in the world could change with Biden.”

Adrian, 26, from Honduras: ‘I can’t go back’

Adrian gives a tour of his kitchen [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

It is hard to value Adrian’s real estate in the camp: a small patch of earth between the toilets and the showers. On the one hand, he has the convenience of the facilities being so close by but on the other hand, on the days when the toilets have not been emptied (or when they are being emptied) the hot stench of sewage comes in waves.

Adrian sits in the shade at a little table outside his tent. As he chats, his pregnant wife carefully tiptoes back to their tent, dripping from a recent shower.

Adrian and his family have been in the camp for 10 months, although he has no real friends here to talk of. He has struggled to make connections in the camp because he does not know who to trust. He knows to avoid the river and anyone who claims to own it, but he is also worried that other people may be passing information back to organised crime gangs.

The camp used to be organised by elected leaders of the eight nations who live in the camp: Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela. However, with the pandemic and the subsequent closure of the asylum hearings, many people, including most of the leaders, have left the camp.

Adrian has been helping to fill that void and organise the camp. “We have to unite to get things done,” he explains. “We regularly talk and discuss what is needed … We hope to God that Biden wins the election. Trump doesn’t want us here.”

“What will you do if Trump wins?” I ask him.

“We have to keep fighting,” he says simply. “I can’t go back. It’s too dangerous for me.” With that, he lifts his shirt to reveal his badly scarred stomach. One long scar runs down from his belly button and next to it sits a healed bullet wound.

“I was shot three times in two thousand and …” he starts to explain.

“When was I shot?” he calls out to his wife who, now dry, is swinging in a nearby hammock.

“24 January 2019,” she responds without hesitation.

Adrian was not involved with gangs. His crime was having an honest job on the street and the personal items that come with employment: a mobile phone, a bike and some cash. He was selling lottery tickets and the attackers wanted his belongings – it was as simple as that, he says.

Ernesto, 30, from Cuba: ‘I have built friendships that will outlast this place’

Ernesto stands next to medical supplies in the clinic run by Global Response Management [Lexie Harrison-Cripps/Al Jazeera]

Ernesto is a 30-year-old Cuban medic who divides his time between the Global Response Management medical clinic in the camp and the local hospital in Matamoros. He is a trained gynaecologist but is equally happy practising general medicine.

He sits in the shaded waiting area by the camp’s clinic during a moment of downtime between patients. Other nurses, translators and volunteers buzz around as he talks about his life in Matamoros.

Ernesto has not applied for asylum in the US. Instead, he says he is waiting for a time when migrants will be allowed in. “Now is not a favourable time for migrants. I’m going to stay here until they sort this huge migratory problem.” There are many in the camp who think that the US will apply a policy of blanket rejection to anyone still waiting for asylum when the courts reopen after the pandemic.

Ernesto is one of the luckier ones. He only visits the camp for his shifts in the clinic. He has found two jobs, lives in an apartment, and is still able to visit Cuba.

While the security situation in Cuba is not like that of other Central American countries, Ernesto describes a state that subjects its citizens to technological surveillance and psychological control.

“In Cuba, we don’t live in the real world,” he says. “The world that we learn isn’t real. When you leave, it hits you because you have been living in a fantasy, an ideology that isn’t real. And when you leave and notice the lie, it shocks you.”

“When I got to Mexico, I saw a protest. I thought it was fantastic that people were able to freely protest on the streets.”

Ernesto says he cannot tell people at home about the “outside world”.

“They see everything you write, everything you say,” he says of the Cuban authorities.

“If you go back to Cuba, as soon as you get off the plane, it comes back to you,” he adds.

The stress etched on to his face begins to disappear as he discusses the Cuban support system in Matamoros. It is stronger than anything he has experienced before, he explains.

“I have built friendships that will outlast this place,” he says. “We’ll be friends forever.”