Where will they go?: Shelter’s closure leaves future uncertain for hundreds of Reynosa migrants

Where will they go?

Felicia Samponaro-Rangel pondered that question late Wednesday evening after the largest migrant shelter in Tamaulipas, Mexico, where her nongovernmental organization has helped in the past couple of months, received an eviction notice. 

This means 600 migrants, including children, could be out on the streets of one of the most violent border cities in Tamaulipas in three days. 

Volunteers with nongovernmental organizations, like Samponaro-Rangel’s Sidewalk School, learned about Senda de Vida’s eviction notice Wednesday. 

A flurry of meetings to strategize a logistical response to the hundreds who could be suddenly displaced were held sporadically Wednesday evening and into Thursday over group chats, messages, emails and in-person gatherings.

Pastor Hector Silva, the shelter director, was caught in the middle of the media storm on calls with attorneys, NGOs, and reporters — one question wouldn’t leave his mind.

“Why now?” Silva wondered during an interview with The Monitor.

The shelter was founded 17 years ago on the same location, and slowly expanded to reflect the growing migration trends in the area. 

“Why are they telling me now? Why didn’t they tell me 14, 16 years ago? Why now?” Silva insisted.

Just a few days before, he received a letter from CILA — a regulatory agency enforcing a 1970 U.S.-Mexico treaty — that cited a violation of the international boundary and the structure’s foundation sitting on a floodplain as a reason for eviction.

Silva said city leaders have not reached out to them since the letter was sent. Yet, on Thursday, Reynosa Mayor Maki Ortiz said on social media the city was instructed to make the move by CILA after the shelter failed to secure a construction permit for its latest addition. 

It should be noted that CILA’s letter is dated June 10; it was 40 days later when the city issued the five day eviction notice.

Senda de Vida began construction in May on its largest addition since its inception. When complete, the shelter would double its capacity to hold about 1,000 migrants.

The state of Tamaulipas even donated the dome that would be used to provide shade on the constructed cement foundation — an act in accordance with historical support from the state government, Silva said. Donations poured in to speed the construction pace, though the weather caused delays. 

Silva said he believes the city was aware the structure was on a floodplain, but it didn’t explain the timing. 

“This is pretext,” Jennifer Harbury said. 

Harbury, a world renown civil rights attorney working in Reynosa, visits Senda de Vida frequently to consult with migrants seeking asylum and in need of legal assistance. The frustrated attorney working as part of the nongovernmental organization, Angry Tias & Abuelas, was outraged.

“They gave five days to evacuate or they’ll demolish it. You got to be kidding,” she said Thursday.

Senda de Vida is one of two locations in Reynosa offering shelter to migrants recently deported from the U.S. or returned to Mexico under pandemic-related policies like Title 42 expulsions. Migrants are allowed to stay there for long periods of time until they can find a way back home, make a living in Reynosa, or enter the U.S.

Thousands of migrants are living on the streets due to deportations and expulsions of families and adults. The co-founder of Sidewalk School, Samponaro-Rangel estimates the number of people living at the Plaza de las Americas, a park a block away from the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, to be close to 3,000.

Her organization takes food, clothing, helps test migrants for COVID-19, provides shelter to those who test positive, and provides education for children.

Vulnerable migrant children, like a girl with spina bifida and her father, are among those families living exposed to the weather and under threat of violence that plagues the border city.

“You’re always in danger if you’re living outside on that plaza. Senda de Vida is one of the safest places you can possibly go in Reynosa,” Samponaro-Rangel said.

They just placed a young boy with cerebral palsy and his parents in Senda de Vida on Wednesday.

“Now you’re going to put him and his parents back out there? That makes no sense,” she added.

Some vulnerable migrants are eligible for U.S. entry through a humanitarian exception in the current U.S. immigration policy. Sidewalk School staff helps identify possible candidates, and sends them to Senda de Vida where other U.S.-based organizations working with U.S. Customs and Border Protection facilitate the legal entry of nearly 70 migrants a day.

As families leave the shelter, others living at the plaza take their place. About 1,200 families living at the plaza are on the waitlist, Silva said Thursday. The other Reynosa shelter with a capacity of about 200 is already full. 

“They’re mad because they want Hector to let them deport people who are staying at Senda. That’s been quite a tussle,” Harbury, the attorney, said. 

Harbury also believes the local government being “deeply embedded with the gangs,” citing money as central to the decision.

“And recently, they want all funding for a quarantine center to be under their control also,” Harbury added. “We, foreigners, are not in favor of that, because they are insisting that anyone testing positive, their names and dates of birth would be reported to the government. … Once the place and the names on site become public in any way, those people are in danger.”

Senda de Vida was given until Saturday to leave. Demolition is scheduled to start Sunday. No interim shelters or other bed space was offered to accommodate the transition. A lack of options and legal intervention will be keeping Silva and the 600 migrants in place.

Lawyers filed an amparo, or a constitutional appeal, on behalf of the shelter requesting more time. Though, its status is unclear. 

Silva proposes a compromise. “Let’s put a wall, if that’s the problem, and create that protection,” he said, referring to the flood zone.

It’s a compromise he hopes will include compassion. 

“A person who doesn’t have the heart to say, let’s work and talk to help this group of families who need help because they’re living in tents. I’m going to help so they can live at the shelter, and then later we can find a way to figure it out — that’s called inhumane,” Silva said.

More migrants will continue arriving in Reynosa after border restrictions were renewed again for the next month — a need that compels Silva to forge ahead. 

“We are not going to close,” Silva asserted. “We are going to continue. It can’t stop us, because we’re in the middle of a great crisis.” 

Uncertainty remains among NGO leaders like Samponaro-Rangel, who said, “If this doesn’t work out, what is everyone going to do?”