Thousands of asylum-seekers from Central America, Cuba and elsewhere have massed in Mexican border cities, waiting and hoping to be granted legal entry to the United States. They have created a humanitarian crisis, and they’re growing impatient.
Responding to that crisis, the Trump administration threatened last week to impose tariffs to pressure Mexico to block the streams of migrants who are crossing its southern border bound for the United States.
In a tweet, President Trump warned that the U.S. would begin imposing a tariff on June 10, “until such time as illegal migrants coming through Mexico, and into our Country, STOP.” If the problem is not “remedied,” the president warned, the tariff would go up 5% each month, reaching a cap of 25%.
In early May, according to estimates compiled by the Associated Press, there were approximately 13,000 migrants waiting in Mexico to apply for asylum.
The old bridge and the new bridge
In Matamoros, Mexico, across the border from Brownsville, Texas, about 1,500 migrants have created their own makeshift communities as they wait. There are two bridges — the old bridge and the new bridge — connecting Matamoros to Brownsville. Migrants can cross those bridges — legally — and request humanitarian protection from U.S. authorities.
Since last year, federal agents have been stationed in the middle of the bridges. They’re posted a few feet inside the United States — like stern doormen at an exclusive Manhattan nightclub. Only here the stakes are higher.
Their job is to limit the number of asylum seekers who get to cross. Customs and Border Protection says it doesn’t have enough room or personnel to process but a few migrants a day, if any.
So the applicants take a number, and wait in Mexico.
One day last week, at the top of the list was 24-year-old Kimberly Lopez, who said she was fleeing marauding gangs in Honduras.
“Sometimes the wait is three days, sometimes more,” she explained in Spanish. “It depends on the U.S. immigration police. Every two hours I go ask them if there’s space. If there’s not, I have to wait longer.”
Lopez is part of a remarkably organized community that has sprung up on the Matamoros side of el Puente Viejo, the old bridge. The migrant at the front of the line has a stool to sit on and a big golf umbrella to protect against the subtropical sun; other migrants bring them food and water while they wait up to 16 hours a day.
A short distance away, about 50 migrants — mostly Cubans fleeing privation on the island — are camped out in blue pup tents. Here, at the Old Bridge encampment, they cook lechon asado, or pork, on a communal hotplate, and bathe in buckets.
“It’s a rustic bathroom,” says Michel Blanco Fernandez, a 25-year-old baker from Havana, who’s been waiting here with his wife for more than two months. “But we’re okay here.”
Blanco says their main concern is that the line into America has been moving slower all the time.
“We’re almost sure this is a maneuver by the immigration agents,” he says. “They want us to give up … to say, ‘I don’t want to suffer anymore. I’m going back to my own country.’ But we have faith that we can eventually cross, even if it takes months.'”
Ports of entry become choke points
Like many immigrant advocates, Efrén Olivares, of the Texas Civil Rights Project, believes the U.S. government does have the resources to process more asylum seekers. But instead, agents have turned ports of entry into choke points. It’s called metering.
“Why don’t they stop this so-called metering policy at the bridge, at the port of entry?” he asked. “If they were to do that, you wouldn’t have the number of apprehensions that you have because people wouldn’t be forced to cross [illegally] between ports of entry, through the river.”
That’s the gnawing decision these immigrant communities have faced — wait to cross the bridge legally or take a risk rafting across the Rio Grande.
Marianela Yedra and her husband have decided to wait. They fled Venezuela with their two children, headed for Orlando to stay with relatives and get treatment for Marianela’s breast cancer.
They feel insecure here. They say a Nicaraguan girl from the encampment was almost abducted by thugs when she went to the store to buy a soda. But Yedra’s family is reluctant to pay human smugglers.
“I’m afraid because we’ve heard the people who take you across the river are mafia. They can kill you, and Lord knows what else!” she said. “They say, ‘It’s quicker. $500 per person.’ I tell them, ‘No, no. We’d rather wait our turn. I’d rather wait here with my family even though it’s inconvenient, and I’m sick.”
About a mile from the Old Bridge is the New Bridge, whose formal name is the Gateway International Bridge.
There’s no orderly encampment here. Dozens of migrants staying in shelters and hotels around town gather every day in the sun-baked plaza, in a sour humor.
They come to wait, and for food and clothing handouts from an unemployed lawyer named Glady Caña. She pulls up in a battered white van and flashes an angelic smile.
She hands out apple juice, canned ravioli and T-shirts. A group of Cubans complains to her that Mexican officials are mismanaging the list of more than 1,000 migrants waiting to cross.
No one knows who’s supposed to cross that day, and they suspect people are jumping to the top of list.
Caña promises to bring up their grievances to the Mexican National Immigration Institute, which manages the list.
There’s been trouble at the New Bridge — drinking and fighting and littering. Caña says she knows they’re tired of waiting and she’s worried some may try to cross the river.
“I ask you all to maintain order, remain calm,” she tells them. “The river is very dangerous. You all don’t know about the undercurrents. Please don’t do this, guys. This is the slow way, but it’s the right way. Have patience.”
The wait-list posted on a bulletin board takes up 24 pages. The names of those who were allowed to cross the bridge have been blacked out. Beside the names of those who gave up is written one word — “Rio,” for river.