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Waiting At The Border For The Holidays: Volunteers Give Meals And Gifts To Migrants

For months, asylum seekers have waited at the U.S.-Mexico border under the Trump Administration’s Remain In Mexico policy  — and they’ll still be there throughout the holiday season. 

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, have criticized the U.S. and Mexican governments for abandoning asylum seekers.

In Matamoros, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, more than 2,000 migrants are stuck in a growing tent encampment filled with people waiting for their day in U.S. immigration court. 

Almost all of their court dates will come after the new year.

One of the groups that has made it their responsibility to care for these asylum seekers is Angry Tias and Abuelas, a small group of people from the Rio Grande Valley who cross into Matamoros regularly. 

On Sunday they handed out more than 500 gift bags that are filled with toys, books and chocolates for the kids who are lined up with smiles on their faces eagerly waiting for it to be their turn to receive a gift.

Nayelly Barrios is with the Angry Tias and Abuelas.

“If we can get some toys to these kids and they’ll be smiling and happy for this moment to play with this toy,” said Barrios. “If we can provide that little joy, then we want to do that.”

Team Brownsville, another Rio Grande Valley nonprofit, was also in Matamoros. 

Hundreds of asylum seekers gather to receive tamales at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.
Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Hundreds of asylum seekers gather to receive tamales at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico.

Mike Benavides said his organization recently asked the kids to write letters to Santa, then one of their members posted those letters on Facebook and the gifts started pouring in.

“A little girl asked for a tablet and you know what? She got a tablet from New Jersey,” said Benavides. “It’s amazing and it’s from all over the country. Yesterday we were all just in tears as we were putting this together because we were just so touched.”

He said the asylum seekers will also be getting tamales today — an effort made possible by his organization and Congressman Filemon Vela

People lined up to get their food at the tent encampment and Daniel Flores, the Bishop of Brownsville, led a prayer before the migrants dig in.

Flores said when he looks around and sees people’s faces, he knows everyone has a different story that led them here but he’s happy they can share this meal together.

“The importance of being able to share something together and not be alone is a great gift and that’s part of what this is about,” Flores said. “In fact, this might be the most important thing that this is about because it does show to these families that they’re not sort of shunned, or cast away. That there are people that do want to encounter them as a human beings and as families.” 

Jill Biden, the former second lady, joined volunteers to hand out plates filled with tamales to moms, dads and children. 

Former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden hands out tamales to asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.
Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Former Second Lady Dr. Jill Biden hands out tamales to asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico.

She toured the encampment alongside aid workers and spoke to migrants through a translator. One of the people she met was Melissa, who said she’s been at Matamoros for seven months.

“She’s from Honduras and she came here because she had death threats related to organized crime,” Biden’s translator said to her.

“And did you come here with other members of your family, or did you come here alone?” asked Biden.

“She came alone,” her translator responded.

Biden said it was heartbreaking to listen to people's stories. She criticized the Trump Administration’s Remain in Mexico policy for sending asylum seekers back here — a place the federal government considers as dangerous as Afghanistan or Syria. 

“It’s really heartbreaking,” Biden said. “There’s so much danger here for the families, for the young women, for the girls. From kidnapping to sex trafficking, to disease to violence, there’s so much here that needs to be addressed and we need to step in and help these people.” 

Some volunteers at the tent encampment questioned Biden’s visit. Lissette Castillio from Brownsville said it’s hard not to see Biden’s trip as opportunism as her husband looks to secure the Democratic nomination for president.

“Joe Biden has played a direct role in the deportation of almost 3 million people and to just view this particular policy as one piece and not to take into consideration the larger detention and deportation machine that has reeked so much harm to so many families, it’s just not fair,” said Castillo.

Presents were donated to children waiting at the border in Matamoros, Mexico.
Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Presents were donated to children waiting at the border in Matamoros, Mexico.

Yoali, from Guerrero, Mexico said her kids were happy to get toys and food today. She asked that we only use her first name to protect her family’s asylum claim. They’ve been put on a waiting list to enter the U.S., another Trump administration policy known as metering. 

She expects to be let in any day now. 

If not, then they’ll have to spend Christmas and the New Year here in the tent encampment with hundreds of other families.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at Reynaldo@TPR.org and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

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