MEXICO CITY — In a camp at the U.S.-Mexico border, some asylum seekers were told by officials that the U.S. government may reopen their cases and they would eventually be able to enter the U.S. to wait out the asylum process.
The new opening for people previously denied came as Mexican authorities worked to close the improvised camp along the banks of the Rio Grande, across from Brownsville, Texas, that has housed thousands of asylum seekers over the more than two years it existed.
Late Friday night, an official with Mexico's Foreign Affairs Ministry said via Twitter that the last asylum seekers with active cases from the camp had been processed and the camp was closed. Others with closed asylum cases who were told their cases could be reopened were urged to move to a shelter. But about 50 had still remained in the camp on Saturday until they were finally moved to a shelter and the camp closed later in the day.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment Friday and Saturday.
Last month, the Biden administration began processing asylum seekers who had been forced to wait out the long process from Mexico during the administration of former President Donald Trump. The Matamoros camp was one of the most visible signs of a policy implemented in response to high numbers of asylum seekers by an administration that worked in various ways to make it more difficult to access protective status in the United States.
On Saturday, Juan Antonio Sierra, who runs the migrant shelter in Matamoros, confirmed that he had committed to housing asylum seekers with closed cases so that the camp could be closed.
Sierra said that the day before, the U.S. Consul in Matamoros, Yolanda Parra, met with officials from the UNHCR, the International Organization for Migration, Mexico's National Immigration Institute, Sierra and some migrants. She agreed that the U.S. government would evaluate the possible reopening of closed cases for the people who remained in the camp, Sierra said.
The U.S. State Department referred questions to the Department of Homeland Security.
"I was going to take them to the Casa del Migrante until it was sure they were going to cross," Sierra said. The goal, he said, was to avoid new people arriving at the camp and assure that those who were still there would only cross the border when it was clear their cases would be reopened and avoid that they were immediately deported.
"They're trying to reopen (the cases)," Sierra said. "You're not going to send a person so that they deport them to their country." But he said the migrants were so desperate they "wanted to go without guarantees."
Asked if word of reopened cases could draw more people to the border, Rev. Francisco Gallardo, who is in charge of the shelter, said "the avalanche is already here, a lot of people are arriving." He warned it could become more complicated, because there were signs that a new camp would form.
The shelter already has more than 200 migrants staying there.
By Friday afternoon, only several dozen asylum seekers remained in the riverside camp. Workers dismantled primitive shelters and hauled away portable toilets. Friday night, power was cut to the camp. But even with the promise that their cases could be reopened, many resisted abandoning the camp for fear that a less public space would allow their shrunken number to be more easily ignored by the U.S. government.
A Honduran asylum seeker who has lived in the camp for two years with her son said that personnel from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees told her Friday that "the United States had approved the reopening of our cases and that we had to wait some days for them to authorize the crossing to the U.S."
The woman, a former police officer who requested anonymity because she did not want to jeopardize her case, said that the U.S. government had rejected her case earlier. With the help of lawyers, she appealed and was turned down again in November. She has filed a subsequent appeal.
"Now there's hope," she said.
Others were informed of the same, she said. Some were told their situation could be addressed in a couple of days, others in 10 days. She said they didn't give her a date.
Previously, U.S. officials have not said if people will be allowed back in the U.S. at some future date to pursue asylum claims that were denied or dismissed under the Trump administration's so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, better known as "Remain in Mexico." They have described the re-entry of an estimated 26,000 people with active cases as an initial step but have not said what any subsequent measures would entail.
The Matamoros camp has been an uncomfortable monument to the exceptional policy for its residents, as well as the U.S. and Mexican governments.
Non-governmental organizations and volunteers eventually gave it some organization and basic sanitation and health services, but it existed in a city held in the sway of organized crime. Many residents were fearful of venturing beyond its borders for fear of rampant kidnappings and extortion.
Human Rights Watch published a report Friday that said it "has consistently found that migrants in Mexico are exposed to rape, kidnapping, extortion, assault, and psychological trauma."
"Tens of thousands of migrant families, including Venezuelans seeking protection from torture, persecution, and arbitrary imprisonment, have been abandoned by the U.S. and Mexican governments to suffer extortion and violence in Mexico," said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
In late January, 19 people — 16 of them Guatemalan migrants — were shot dead near Camargo, upriver from Matamoros near the border with Texas. A dozen state police have been arrested in connection with their killings.
On Monday, in Nuevo Laredo, another Tamaulipas border city, a Honduran woman and her 10-year-old son were shot and gravely wounded.
The Honduras consul in the area, Juan Carlos Ponce, confirmed the attack and said that Thursday they remained hospitalized, but declined to share details because they were victims of a serious crime.
On Thursday, 10 Democratic members of Congress told U.S. Secretary of Antony Blinken that the U.S. government must help to push for greater protections for migrants and asylum seekers waiting in Mexico.