Found mixed between photos of Felicia Rangel-Samponaro’s 10-year-old son and the schools built in Mexico for asylum seekers by her nongovernmental organization — the Sidewalk School — are photos showing migrant children with bloody noses in Reynosa, videos of migrant families kneeling beside people standing off-camera holding guns to their heads, and images showing large patches of skin burned off limbs of migrants lucky enough to have survived through it.
Unseen trauma threatens the lives of the smallest among them, too. Children have tried ending their lives at the encampment, Rangel-Samponaro said.
“How can you fix something that serious if you don’t have anything? You can’t,” she said. “All you can do is sit there and watch your child suffer.”
A TYPICAL DAY IN THE CAMP
A symphony of clashing cellphone notifications, ringers, alarms can be heard as the sun rises one Saturday morning over the Plaza las Americas, a park sitting a block away from the foot of the international bridge connecting Reynosa to Hidalgo.
By 7:30 a.m., a loud sermon from an eager preacher pierces through the thin plastic tarps and tents waking up the snoring men, coughing children, and tired women scattered throughout the 53,000 square-foot plaza.
Dreary faces hang from the families waking up to another hot day. The morning routine for many is similar to those of any resident, brushing their teeth, going to the restroom, and taking a shower. Except, utilities are spread apart, public and sometimes at a cost.
Long lines form around the nearly dozen portable restrooms set up in a corner of the plaza. Others head to the water tanks set up on wooden platforms with spouts poking out. Some children, still new to the pressure, open it too much and water springs out in large arcs. Parents nearby adjust it to a more moderate release of the water they use to splash on their faces, drink, and brush their teeth.
Those who have some money opt to pay 10 pesos, about $0.50 cents, to take a shower across the street where some concrete brick stalls were recently opened to provide a service and create a business.
Women sleeping in bunk beds, which were set up by a church before they arrived in Reynosa, sit back down on the inflatable mattresses or piles of blankets near their belongings.
“What do you do next?,” they’re asked. “Nothing.”
They linger on their beds, under the tarps that protect them from the rising sun and heat that day. Children find their own ways to entertain themselves, many dragging toys like a boy who tied a string to a broken plastic truck.
A popular choice are trompos, or wooden tops that spin when unraveled from a string and slammed onto the floor.
A group of boys sit on a pile of tarps using figurines and play out action scenes. Phones are a rare form of entertainment in a place where electricity is not guaranteed.
Parents connect them into plugs hidden like Easter eggs around the park, afraid they’ll lose them like they lost propane tanks days ago.
Over the last few months, since April, the camp of aspiring asylum seekers expelled from the U.S. through a federal public health policy grew from dozens to over 2,000. The policy started in March of last year when the pandemic caused global concern.
Busloads of migrants who arrive in the U.S. are processed by Border Patrol and driven to the bridge where they’re told to walk toward Mexico.
Not everyone who is sent back stays at the plaza, but a lack of options and resources, and criminal organizations surrounding and infiltrating the area keep many locked in place.
Two pregnant women who arrived Aug. 1 in Reynosa were determined not to stay there. The two Central Americans walked to the nearest place where they could receive money sent from relatives, a dangerous act for migrants frequently targeted by criminals preying on them.
A lack of shoelaces, which are taken away by Border Patrol during processing, plastic bags from the U.S, or a lost look often betray them to observant kidnappers.
One of the women cried as they walked over to the Oxxo, a convenience store four blocks away from the bridge.
Once they arrived, the cashier explained they would not be able to receive any money that day, due to a lack of beer sales that weekend. Even if they were to send money, the next day, so many people depend on that remittance service they are not able to guarantee the money would be ready.
As the two left, a man and woman, two locals, advised them not to leave the plaza. Men often look for migrants to take off the street, they warned. After they arrived back at the encampment, they searched for a taxi, an airport, or a bus depot to escape the city — all dangerous ventures for migrants who do not know anyone in the Mexican border city of Reynosa.
One of the women made it to safety, she later reported. It’s unknown what happened to the second pregnant woman.
SENSE OF HOPELESSNESS
Some families who arrive in Reynosa are taken from the encampment. Cartels are attracted to the area they see as a business opportunity.
“You’re talking about a million or so dollars living out on that plaza,” Rangel-Samponaro explained. “That’s how the cartel views these asylum seekers.”
One of the rivaling cartel factions is rumored to be at the camp to ensure their grasp of the area.
“In Reynosa, they show their faces all the time. They’re not scared to show you who they are,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “They will get whatever they’re after, and usually it’s the asylum seekers.”
Even the Sidewalk School, which has several classrooms around the city, has experienced their share of threats, but Rangel-Samponaro preferred not to discuss it in detail.
Migrant families often fall prey to kidnappings.
Last week, a boy approached one of the Sidewalk School teachers, a fellow asylum seeker, and confided a recent experience.
“On the first day of class, he told her, ‘Something happened to me, I need help,’” she said.
For 20 seconds, Rangel-Samponaro stopped talking, trying to suppress her tears, as she recalled the incident.
“They had been in Reynosa for over a month and something happened to him and his mother out there,” Rangel-Samponaro said without going into the specific situation. “This is, in Reynosa especially, this is a very common problem. These kids watch their parents get tortured when they get kidnapped as a family. The cartel makes sure they all stay in the same room. The kids watch what happens to their parents.”
The child expressed a need for therapy, which he was able to receive. Another 8-year-old wasn’t able to do that. The child tried to take their life. The mother was able to call for help and they survived.
Others are unable to express themselves.
“We have met a couple of kids who were dropped off at the plaza after the ransom was paid,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “And, the kids we’ve met, they don’t speak.”
A fragile sense of safety forms and fades in different parts of the encampment throughout the day and into the night.
Late one Friday night, a religious group gathered among the narrow clear spaces that exist between the tents, benches and tarps at the plaza.
A spirited, heartfelt rendition of “El Alfarero,” or “The Potter,” closed the evening of worship and prayer among the group of about 40.
“Quiero una alabanza en lugar de tu quejar. Quiero tu confianza en la tempestad,” they sang. I want your praise in place of your complaints. I want your trust in the middle of the storm.
It isn’t easy to stay hopeful in a place like Reynosa.
Faith strips away slowly from parents who see their child suffering nose bleeds from the unforgiving temperatures, collapse from heat exhaustion, or become inexplicably sick from a possible COVID-19 contagion.
Those who witness their children attempt to end their lives are often driven to extreme decisions.
As a mother herself, Rangel-Samponaro places herself in their position.
“You want to watch your kid try and commit suicide over and over again?” she asked, reflectively. “One of those times they will be successful. They will be.”
Parents, desperate to find a solution, opt to send their children alone to the U.S., where federal policy prohibits the government from sending them immediately back to their home countries or Mexico.
Rangel-Samponaro often advised parents who were in the Matamoros encampment against the decision to send their children alone. Now, after constantly receiving photos and updates of children suffering in Reynosa, she’s changed her mind.
“These aren’t easy decisions for the parents, but if you’re out there and you see what they see, and what their children have to go through, I judge no one for doing that. I get it. I would do it. I know he would eat,” she said, referring to her son. “I know he wouldn’t be kidnapped. I know he wouldn’t watch people getting raped, and he wouldn’t watch people getting beat up.”
Rangel-Samponaro and her co-founder, Victor Cavazos, press on. On a daily basis, they visit Reynosa to help families with food, shelter, clothes, or guidance to another non-governmental organization providing legal or similar services.
It would be easy to give into the pressure and guilt of their job, as she nearly did the first year helping in Matamoros, when she went through a divorce. Instead, she stays focused on the accomplishments.
“The little 8-year-old wasn’t successful. He got treatment on the Mexico side. He and his mother are now on the U.S. side. Upside,” Rangel-Samponaro said.
To date, over 1 million people encountered by Border Patrol were sent back, mostly to Mexico, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Soon, a different policy, the one responsible for the encampment in Matamoros in 2019, the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” will be reinstated to send migrants back to Mexico where they will be forced to wait for their U.S. court hearings.
Advocates and volunteers like Rangel-Samponaro are concerned over the future of families, especially children, pushed back into cities like Reynosa. Difficult decisions will lay ahead of families who succumb to violence.
“Biden is still separating families,” she said, expecting the number of unaccompanied children sent to the U.S. to grow. “He’s just doing it in a very different way.”