Chronicle of my 48 Hours Helping Asylum Seekers At The Border

Sandra Villarroel

** All the faces of the asylum seekers photographed were intentionally blurred to protect their identity.
* The original text has been modified for the safety of the people involved.

– Preface:

On August 24th & 25th, I traveled to Brownsville Texas, to deliver donations Worth Manifesto, a Pittsburgh PA based project, had gathered for women at the border.

The donations were going to 3 different organizations. One of them was Angry Tias, and this story describes my interaction with Elisa, one of the founders.

– Elisa, Angry Tia

Elisa coordinates the relief efforts at one of the bridges that connect Brownsville with Matamoros, where people have been lining up in the hope to get permission to enter into the United States, legally.

It’s sunny, it’s humid, It is 8 am, and the thermostat is in the 90s…. I have only been outside for 3 minutes, and I’m already drenched.

Elisa is a determined lady, whom every morning loads herself with a red cart, red vest, and a fedora hat, and walks the bridge pulling as many humanitarian donations as she can haul with her petite figure.
Today, she is allowing me to join her, along with a few other volunteers.

Elisa pulling a cart with donations in the Matamoros Bridge | picture by Sandrachile
Elisa and sister Pam | pic by Sandrachile

Elisa walks fast.

There are many reports of cartel activity in Matamoros. Some volunteers have talked of the kidnappings of refugees and volunteers, and human trafficking is happening on both sides of the river.

After a few blocks, we reach the Mexican border, and we are welcomed by a turnstile gate and a sign that reads “Come on over! This is your home”, proof of the Mexican hospitality.

Brownsville / Matamoros bridge. Signs read “Come over! This is your home” | pic by Sandrachile
Elisa putting her quarters while pulling the loaded cart. | pic by Sandrachile

We then walk about a block more, through a “voluntary declaration” checkpoint. They know Elisa, she has made herself a name around here, and doors open when she walks. Everybody knows who she is. She is admired and respected, the officers look through what she brings, while I feel proud to be walking by her side.

A Mexican customs officer checking through the carts of humanitarian help | pic by Sandrachile

I opened my backpack that’s full of wet wipes, while Elisa and the other volunteers show their little carts to the customs officers: Shoelaces, blankets, pillows, inflatable mattresses, tuna, granola bars, underwear… the officer, one by one, let us in.

Once we are allowed to proceed, and we begin to walk into Mexico, the strong smell welcomes me in, as I start seeing the heartbreaking consequences of the Remain In Mexico Policy.

asylum seekers | pic by Sandrachile

– Remain in Mexico Policy?

I’m gonna explain it with the following analogy:

I live in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. In February the weather reaches -15 degrees, it's cold, dangerously cold. Breathing hurts during those days.

Imagine you come and knock on my door and asks for help, but instead of letting you in, I say, hold on, let me think for 10 to 20 days if I can let you into the house, and only then, you can explain to me what exactly it is that you want. Then, I close my door, leaving you outside. Maybe my neighbor can help you while you wait in the minus fifteen-degree weather, facing frostbite, hypothermia, and eventual death.

Our administration believes that the current immigration laws are being abused, so rather than following the law already in place, it has invented a procedure that forces asylum seekers to wait in Mexico, where they have nothing; with a policy that violates the international agreements to protect asylum seekers, and leaves Mexico in charge of these travelers.

https://www.dhs.gov/news/2019/01/24/migrant-protection-protocols

(If you are a critic wondering why don’t they go back, read the story of Ivy)

Some of these refugees are skilled people, but they don’t have tools, and their highly vulnerable situation makes it difficult to find or keep employment.
Despite that, some have managed to find work, even the ones who don’t speak Spanish.
Elisa says, “not only the US doesn’t have clean hands regarding the situations in some countries refugees are fleeing from, but in the case of Matamoros, Reynosa, Tijuana, El Paso, etc.; it is the US who has created this humanitarian crisis with its metering practices and the enforcement of the Migrant Protection Protocol also known as Remain in Mexico Policy.”

the border, the real border | pic by Sandrachile

The Situation At The Bridge:

Once at the bridge, the first thing I notice is a large number of tents, it’s almost 9 am and over 90 degrees already.

Tents of the asylum seekers, living homelessly, in Matamoros Mexico | pic by Sandrachile

I immediately wonder how hot inside the tents probably is, then I notice who are the ones using them.

My heart breaks right there.
Tons of children are waking up, crying, looking for their parents. I am not talking about pre-teens or teens, I am talking about young children under 3 or 4 years old.

living in hot tents: 5 adults and 6 children under 5 years old | pic by Sandrachile

The people see us, and they know we are there with help for them, so they began to run towards us…

Amanda (@amandalagringa) pulling a cart with humanitarian help. The clothes of the migrants hang on the fence. People have been washing them in the Rio Grande, only a few feet away | pic by Sandrachile
Angry Tias volunteer’s ready to distribute humanitarian help to asylum seekers at the Mexican side of the South Texas border | pic by Sandrachile

About 2000 refugees have been returned to Matamoros because of the Remain In Mexico policies. About 500 sleep in tents at the skirt of the bridge, children and pregnant women included. Close to 700 show up for dinner every night.

Elisa makes everyone form a line, but they don’t listen. Everybody’s mental state is in fragile condition. People can barely make eye contact, children are unresponsive. I am not a doctor but they look sad and seem traumatized.

Angry Tia's volunteer trying to organize asylum seekers for the donations | pic by Sandrachile

I hear the accents. I can identify Venezuelan, Cuban, Haitian, and Salvadoran people.

Elisa begins to distribute the shoelaces and underwear. A few feet away, the rest of the volunteers do the same.
I prefer to take pictures first.

Elisa trying to distribute blankets among asylum seekers | pic by Sandrachile
a female asylum seeker stretching her hand for a pair of underwear | pic by Sandrachile
children reaching out for underwear that Angry Tia Elisa hands out in Matamoros border crossing | pic by Sandrachile

A man comes and begs me: “Señorita, por favor! Do you have a blanket, or a piece of cardboard so I can lay on, I’m sleeping on the ground, please!”

I notice the massive puddle of pee next to the porta-potties, right beside the tents… The ground is not only hard but unsanitary.

the fence of the Rio grande reflecting on the urine laying on the ground next to where the asylum seekers sleep, eat, and spend their days | pic by Sandrachile

I point at one of the volunteers:
– She has the blankets, I say.
But her cart is already empty, within seconds everything is gone.

asylum seekers lined up receiving blankets | pic by Sandrachile

Where are you from? I shout to one of the guys there. He doesn’t have shoelaces.

The detention center takes the shoes of asylum seekers. People who have been at the detention centers but are back into Mexico are referred to as “MPP’s” | pic by Sandrachile

I am from El Salvador, he says.

– Hmmm! the land of the pupusas I reply, trying to imply I am familiar with his country.
I ask him why doesn’t he have shoelaces, but he remains quiet, he is afraid to talk.

asylum seekers are in a fragile state of mind | pic by Sandrachile

Then a kid comes running to me and asks, how do I eat this, pointing at a tuna fish pouch.

He must’ve been only 12, his and everybody else’s demeanor is the saddest, the most discouraged I have ever seen, and he doesn’t make eye contact with me, but he is happy with the pouch of tuna.

How humble! Just a pouch of Tuna!

I realize this repeats itself a lot. Among the general crowd, there are more children than adults. The average must be 8 or 9 years old. For every 3 adults, there is an average of 7 children. All seem sick, lots of coughing is going around. They all seem sad, they are unresponsive. I wave at all of them, try to talk, but they don’t respond at all. None of them have toys or any children’s stuff.

the threat our administration is so afraid of. In this picture, he is coughing, a lot of the children are sick | pic by Sandrachile

I suddenly start getting mad, furious! It is obvious who the real victims are here, so I decide to walk away, but I remember that my backpack is still full of wet wipes to hand out.

I try to give them to women, mostly, and I make a point to make eye contact with each of them and to smile. It is obvious that everybody here is severely traumatized, they behave like lambs heading to the butcher.

handing out wet wipes | pic by Sandrachile

One guy comes to me and asks if I can give him my backpack, please, to carry stuff, he says… I tell him that If I give him my backpack today, I won’t be able to fill it with more stuff the next day, he smiles. It’s the first time somebody shows a smile to me.

Suddenly, Elisa yells PEDRO! PEDRO!. It’s the code word for let’s go.

I breathe deeply one last time. I want to inhale the musty smell because I don’t want to forget what I just witnessed: It is the smell of INJUSTICE.

THIS NEEDS TO STOP! | pic by Sandrachile
the last thing you see on the Mexican side, once entering the US, a sign that read “Happy Journey” | picture by Sandrachile

Once back at the USA customs, I wave my passport card, and they let me right in. There is a picture of Trump to my right, and it makes me nauseous. There is also a poster right next to it that says, “If you have any complaints call this number”… Sarcasm much?

The whole group walks back into the US side, and Elisa leaves quickly.

I get back in the car, and after blasting the AC I log onto my bank account to check how much money I have. There is enough money so I can stop at the dollar store and buy all the tuna, and toys they have, so I decide to stay in Brownsville and to go back the bridge the next day.

Border wall, secured with wire with razors | pic by Sandrachile

DAY 2 AT THE BRIDGE:

A group of psychologists is coming to assess the fragile state of mind of asylum seekers, and we have to wait for them. They are flying in from Houston, so instead of going at 8 am, today we will be going at noon.

I arrive a little earlier to Elisa’s house. A nun I met the day before and Elisa are arranging the carts in the backyard, loading them with as many things as we can. We are in the shade, but it is over 90 degrees today.

Sister Pam, arranging donations into the carts | pic by Sandrachile

— Evangelical Christians

I am still angry about what I witnessed the day before. And one of the things that it’s making me angry is to see the lack of evangelical Christian presence helping out.

Aside from 2 nuns I have come across, everyone else in here is non-religious.

As someone who goes to church every week, I can’t avoid feeling mad to think thousands, if not millions of Christians across the United States, fill the pews every week, praying for the unreached, yet are enabling a President who is literally torturing those same unreached, and they are dying as a result of his policies.

The beautiful sky of Texas, contrasting with the steeple of La Lomita chapel, a church built in 1865. Building the wall here will destroy this historical landmark. | Pic by Sandrachile

The militarization and intimidation I have witnessed at the border is certainly not the way the northern border is treated, this means it is not an issue with borders, but an issue with the brown people, and to remember that in the past, the USA’s Christians have already sided with racism, is making me furious.

The Wall. The infamous wall | pic by Sandrachile
A helicopter of the National Guard tries to intimidate me, flying above me, when I took pictures of the wall | pic by Sandrachile

— Tuna & Toys

Elisa says it’s time to go, so we start marching. Today my backpack is filled with tuna and toys, but I also brought 80 of the shower kits we assembled with my Worth Manifesto campaign, and a box of 125 pairs of sunglasses, donated by Claire, a small entrepreneur in Pittsburgh, who made a point to include a handwritten encouraging note in each one of the bags with sunglasses.

The campaign of Worth Manifesto was fueled by small entrepreneurs, like Claire, the one who donated these sunglasses | pic by Sandrachile

We finally made it to the other side of the bridge. The sun is burning today, I am feeling a little dizzy, but I push through. Once we get to Matamoros, I see that people are hiding from the sun wherever they can.

People hiding from the sun under a few small bushes along the fence of the Rio Grande | pic by Sandrachile

People run desperately to me when they see my cart. I have a bag of flip flops and the shower kits. Everybody seems to be desperate for the “chanclas” (that is how Latinos call flip flops) and I make a point to make jokes about these: Big paws, or small paws? I ask and they laugh.

Tiny hands waiting for flip flops | pic by Sandrachile

So far I have learned that from the second the migrants leave their countries until they arrive to their relatives in the United States, the journey is humiliating. and it takes away their dignity.
Every person they come across treats them like a number. Nobody takes the time to bring back the human factor, the laughs, smiles, a soft touch, a hug, or a short conversation.

The lives of asylum seekers revolve around the hope of coming to America, and all they talk is about that. All they want is that, and they can’t think of anything else, except surviving and crossing the border.

Perhaps my tiny jokes about the flip flops can distract them from the constant stress of thinking about the uncertainty if they will be let in.

— Sit Down.

Everybody needs to sit down, I yell at the top of my lungs.
–Sentados! Todos tienen que estar sentados!

This allows me to clearly see the faces of who I am giving the items to, and not just a bunch of hands up in my face.

I have my camera on my right hand, and a pair of flip flops on my left one, Miss, miss! I suddenly hear a moan,
Please, I beg you, would you have any toothpaste?

The shower kits I brought have basic hygiene supplies and although they are intended for women, I hand him one regardless.
Suddenly I am surrounded by women and children, all of them want one as well.
I know that makeup and toiletries always make me happy, this is why I launched Worth Manifesto, and I’m seeing first hand, how it makes them happy too. Their eyes light up.

The donations for bags assembled by Worth Manifesto came from diverse places, as far as Uruguay, Nevada, and Alaska. | pic by Sandrachile
A pregnant mom, holding onto the bag with toiletries she just received | pic by Sandrachile

It takes me a few minutes to get rid of all the things I brought with me, but during those minutes, I exchange all kinds of compliments, smiles, jokes, and we all laugh, despite the heat index saying it’s 125 degrees out.

The more I give things out, the more children show up, and I am excited for what is about to happen. The happiest moment of my life begins to take place: I start handing out the toys.
Children are in such a fragile state of mind here, they don’t smile, they don’t talk. Everybody shows severe signs of PTSD, but at least for one day, they can be children again.

Children lined up among the crowd, excited to receive the small toys I brought | pic by Sandrachile

Each of my toys was handed to each of the small pair of hands. Once I ran out of toys it’s time to leave.

children playing with the doll I gave her | | pic by Sandrachile
Cool kid alert: Watch me and my new sunglasses! (notice the girl to the right, wearing boots, yet it was over 100 degrees that day) | pic by Sandrachile

Elisa comes and squirts a dollop of hand sanitizer in my hand, I honestly want to shower in it. I’m still sweaty, dizzy, and a bit shaky. it’s time to get out fast, but my heart aches thinking I have a way out of that infernal weather, but they need to stay there.

This is my last time at the bridge, but not for Elisa, she will be back the next day, and then the next one, and then the following one after that. As long as there are asylum seekers forgotten at the border, she will continue with her mission to spread compassion to them, along with the Angry Tias, who day by day get to witness the unfairness of a system built behind a desk in the city, far away from the victims.

Jodi Godwin, an immigration lawyer working for FREE to help asylum seekers | pic by Sandrachile

We walk off of the bridge and I see Jodi Goodwin, sitting down, an immigration lawyer who has been working here at the bridge, explaining legal matters to the group of people who were at a border detention center, and are now back into Mexico.

Jodi was there the day before as well, a lawyer working pro bono (which is a fancy word to say “free”).

All the people helping here use their own time and resources to pay for hotel, airfare, and meals. These are the heroes of the story. Forget wonder woman or batman, Elisa Filippone, Jodi Goodwin, Sister Pam.
I hope to see their names in the books one day, hopefully, the day people don’t have to risk their lives when they want to seek a better future for their families.

Life at the bridge. In the limbo of immigrating | pic by Sandrachile
Join me advocating for an immediate STOP to the REMAIN IN MEXICO POLICY.

Disclaimer: **** I am not a lefty (nor a righty). I’m, in fact, not political. To me, all politics are opportunistic, and I don’t like any of them. When I see people in need I help them, despite political parties, religion, color.
When people need help, I help. I strive to see the humanity in every human, and in this opportunity, I just had a gut feeling that help was needed, so I tried to help.
After this trip, I am more political than ever. If you made it this far into the story, you might now understand why****


Learn more about Worth Manifesto’s mission to empower the most vulnerable groups of women.

Sandra Villarroel

Written by

Immigrant, wedding photographer, Christian. Obsessed with social justice. An altogether opinionated woman trying to change the world.

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