Binational Effort Seeks to Give Asylum Seekers Agency in the Aid Process

“It’s not dignified to have to wait on somebody to feed you,” says Gaby Zavala, looking up from a barrage of texts to answer questions. Her desk, in a small office overlooking the camp of asylum seekers along the Rio Grande just past the Gateway International Bridge, is stacked with folders of receipts and paperwork brought to her by camp residents she employs as volunteers.

As of mid-December, the Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Mexico, co-founded by Brownsville resident Zavala and her colleague Brendon Tucker, is the only bi-national humanitarian effort that has been able to secure a permanent space to assist refugees living homeless near the bridge in Matamoros.

The work-in-progress space was set up in an old medical office in October. It houses services intended to help those stuck in the camp provide for themselves for months between hearings. Zavala and Tucker have been able to forge relationships between aid networks and local officials in Matamoros to develop programs intended to help asylum seekers back onto their feet.

The two say they’re using the space with the ultimate goal of helping those made dependent by the U.S. immigration system reclaim a sense of normalcy. “Many of these people are escaping death,” she says.

“We’re working with people who have been abused by the system. They went through that system and now they are dependent. We shouldn’t let that happen.”

The Resource Center has been over a year in the making. Zavala and Tucker, like many in the Valley, helped begin efforts to feed those trapped on the international bridges beginning in 2018 when U.S. Customs and Border Protection started metering the number of asylum claims processed at ports of entry each day.

Volunteers have watched the number of people living homeless in the camp skyrocket from several hundred to an estimated 1,200 to 2,000 refugees. The focus of the humanitarian effort has shifted to Matamoros, yet most organizations remain based on the other side of the border.

Mexico, specifies Zavala, is not only a foreign country to those awaiting their court dates, but is also foreign to the vast majority of U.S.-based aid networks who have limited ability to forge relationships with officials in Tamaulipas.

In that sense, the center exists in a vacuum. Zavala, Tucker, and a team of four regular volunteers provide real-time response to medical emergencies, legal issues, and public health concerns without having to cross the border, where Mexican immigration officials prohibit donated supplies from being transported across in large quantities.

Programs currently housed in the center include translation services by Lawyers for Good Government (LFGG), medical care from Global Response Management (GRM), psychological evaluations by volunteer therapists to aid asylum applications, a medical referral program, church services, arts and crafts workshops, and a soon-to-be HIV and Syphilis testing program spearheaded by Zavala in collaboration with Mexico’s public health system.

“The people in this camp are resilient. They want to cook for themselves. They want to provide for their own children. We owe it to them to provide the resources to be able to do that,” she says.

“We owe it to them to be able to see out their court cases. These cases are like sustenance. People would rather go without a meal to get the paperwork done in time for their hearings.”

Downstairs, some thirty camp residents have gathered outside the entrance to the center, gripping paperwork against gusts of wind. Some occupy chairs set up just below the staircase like a waiting room. Other residents volunteering at the center explain how the process will work, answering questions to pass on to attorneys with LFGG, who help asylum seekers prepare for self-representation in the tent court system.

“One of the things we’re seeing lately is that people are being dropped off in Matamoros by CBP despite the fact that they entered in Nuevo Laredo or Reynosa,” says Zavala of her involvement transporting asylum seekers to hearings.

The government does not provide transportation to and from court dates despite the fact that asylum seekers stuck in Mexico under MPP are considered to be in “detained” status for the duration of their immigration proceedings. Applicants can be ordered removed from the United States in absentia if they don’t show up to a hearing.

Volunteer networks have been largely responsible for ensuring that asylum seekers arrive on time to court hearings. Applicants are often required to present themselves at CBP ports of entry as early as 4:00 a.m. Asylum seekers must be adequately clean and free of lice and bruises so that they’re not turned back after being inspected upon entry.

“I usually have to shell out $350 to $400 to pay for a private driver and hotel rooms,” says Zavala, who notes that it’s unsafe to take the bus along the border.

“I recently had a case where the grandma was put in separate proceedings because she had a different last name and we had to send the entire family.”

Tucker arrives, fresh from his morning activities. These include, but are not limited to taking care of the previous day’s paperwork, managing GRM’s medical staff, assisting with emergency scenarios, and odd jobs involving anything from shoveling human waste out of donated port-a-potties to building hand-wash stations to prevent illness from spreading around the camp.

“Watch this be my third 16-hour day in a row,” he says with a laugh, putting his face in his hands. He adds, “In terms of the transportation, it’s not safe for them to take Highway 2 to other cities. What ends up happening is that they have drive down to Monterrey and then come back up.”

In late October, Tucker personally cleaned out a row of 10 donated port-a-potties that were overflowing onto the street. “That was a three-day project,” he said.

“I shoveled dirt from the park, sprinkled the dirt everywhere, then had to shovel all of that out. In-between everything I was at the hardware store in Matamoros getting supplies to build sinks. And then they overflowed again. But, this is work that has to be done.”

Zavala has been able to leverage her background as an organizer to win grants to finance various projects, although staff is working for little to no pay. The center provides small stipends to residents they bring in from the camp. “It’s important to talk about this, because really we’re acting as HR. Some of these people might have to stay in Mexico. When they go to apply for other jobs, we can be a reference.”

“As they gain confidence, skills, and a little bit of money, they can go out and find other work. Then, we’re able to find more people work,” she explains.

If GRM needs translators, the center pairs the doctors with asylum seekers. They’ve organized a camp cleanup and sanitation crew comprised of residents who know the space well and are invested in keeping the dwellings clean.

Services that need to be outsourced remain plenty, however, and locals interested in assisting are encouraged to make contact. We’d love to have paralegals,” says Tucker. “People who are bilingual – fluently bilingual volunteers.”

Zavala adds, “Even people to take over and watch the doors so we can go on lunch would be helpful. People who can go out into the camp daily and speak to people and help us generate ideas about how to improve the situation.”

The center currently accepts donations through a GoFundMe page. Zavala encourages anyone who wants to assist camp residents to approach the center with requests rather than distributing supplies at random, leading to frenzied scenarios where people may get desperate.

“This is all about dignity. We’re taking care of medical. We’re prepping them for self-representation in the courts, which is the best we can do right now because there are so many cases,” she says, referencing a shortage of pro bono immigration attorneys equipped to take on an overwhelming number of asylum cases in the Valley.

“They have food, they have clothing, they have materials. They don’t have the best shelter, but they do have something. Now families can start thinking, ‘How can I get back to normal? How can I become self-sufficient again?”

Zavala says she’d like to exhibit the work of asylum seekers taking crafting classes. Ultimately, she hopes the program will generate a basic income for families with the center helping sell the crafts via sites like Etsy.

“People tour through the camp and take pictures. I have this vision in my head where instead of seeing people living in a vulnerable situation washing their laundry, you see them presenting themselves with a story to tell.”

If there’s a problem that needs to be solved, groups of migrants gather at a table on the first floor of the center to share their ideas. A group of engineers with Camp Dignity recently approached the center asking for input on how to best construct shelters they plan to donate.

“I asked residents, ‘How do you think we should do this?’ They ended up suggesting that we build a family section, a section for adult males, and a section for adult females. That’s how we go about decision making. Everyone is involved in the process.”

The center’s close ties to the camp also make it an integral humanitarian resource in emergency scenarios. Zavala was one of the first aid workers able to converse with officials and figure out whether residents would be forced to relocate when Mexico’s federal disaster response agency (Nacional de Protección Civil, SINAPROC) showed up overnight and began constructing tents early this month.

Additionally, the center has been primarily responsible for organizing the transport of critically ill asylum seekers into the United States to get medical treatment through a medical referral program. “This is the most interesting thing, in my opinion,” says Tucker, citing the fact that it’s next to unheard of that CBP would grant parole to an asylum seeker subject to MPP.

“They always find something they can point to and say there’s not enough proof,” he says, estimating that the center has now assisted 20 asylum seekers through the CBP checkpoint to access emergency rooms in the United States.

Zavala has been able to cultivate relationships with both public and private sector doctors in Matamoros. This makes appointments with specialists possible for those with serious medical conditions. It’s an unprecedented degree of access to healthcare and marks the first time that camp residents have been offered consistent appointments with medical professionals.

Last week, a young boy who resides in the camp was provided with access to a neurologist. Others have been sent to OBG-YN’s, urologists, and other specialists. For the time being, the center is able to submit medical bills to funders for reimbursement, though resources remain limited.

As part of the referral program, the center sends patients to local doctors or the hospital via a network of verified “safe taxis”. Migrants in need of medical assistance are accompanied by a chaperone equipped with a list of every test doctors at GRM want done for the sake of the patients’ medical records.

According to Tucker, local hospitals often run low on supplies or simply refuse to treat unaccompanied asylum seekers. “We’ve had cases where a doctor won’t do an x-ray because it’s going to cost $50 or $75 and they just send them home,” he says.

The program has saved lives. In one of those cases, a resident with sickle-cell anemia had a dangerously low blood oxygen level. Doctors at the hospital in Matamoros sent him back to the camp instead of giving him a blood transfusion.

“We put him on saline, we got his medical records together, we got all the tests together. We contacted the Congressman’s office. He contacted the Port Director, who notified CBP that a critically ill asylum seeker would be coming with an attorney, and we got him across,” explains Tucker.

“The next day we were Facetiming. It’s cases like that where someone would have died and it would have made the news and all of these things would be happening. We get to mitigate that on the spot because we have the infrastructure right here.”

Next on the center’s agenda is a program developed by Zavala that provides HIV and Syphilis testing to deported immigrants. The center is located just a few buildings down from Repatriación Humana, the agency tasked with re-integrating Mexican citizens deported from the United States.

“People who are living in the U.S. who have already been on HIV treatment for some time and then get deported, for whatever reason – the requirements over there don’t require documentation that someone needs treatment – lose continuity of the services,” Zavala explains.

“It’s important to help these people maintain undetectable levels of HIV. We’re going to be the point of contact here. They get dropped off and they go through here. We’re going to be the center where they do their paperwork and then we connect them to the federal program here in Mexico.”

Zavala also plans to allocate funding to provide testing to the asylum-seeking population. “I’m excited about this, in particular, because it’s going to provide a platform to begin addressing larger health concerns in the camp, which really is its own city and has every public health concern you can think of.”

“There is drug and alcohol abuse. We’ve encountered kidnappings and sexual assaults. I’m hoping that this program will plant the seeds for a safe space where we can address these issues, which often go unreported.”

The program marks one of the first collaborations in Matamoros between an aid organization assisting camp residents and the Mexican government. Zavala largely serves as a bridge between volunteers and local officials, with whom she has spent months grooming relationships.

She notes that it has been difficult to know who the center is dealing with at times – if the person is an official or if they don’t actually carry the weight that say they do, as relationships with local government agencies were practically non-existent when aid efforts started.

“If somebody needs a meeting with the Mexican mayor, there I am calling. Bridging, bridging, bridging is what I do. Developing a relationship with the city hasn’t happened overnight.”

Officials in Matamoros reached out to Zavala when the center opened in October. She was asked not to provide attorney assistance and it was implied that she should try to convince asylum seekers that they have no case. “For them, the sentiment was, ‘The Americans are doing that. The Americans are bringing their tents. They’re getting comfortable. They’re making them comfortable.”

“I made the point that people spend thousands of dollars to get up here. Their families are danger if they don’t pay coyotes back. People don’t through all of that just for somebody to put them on a bus and send them back to where they came from.”

Zavala has opted to be more inclusive with the local government officials as the camp numbers have skyrocketed and conditions deteriorate, stating that there’s not much of an alternative. The center still deals with officials taking away supplies they’ve distributed or limiting the days on which they’re allowed to distribute aid to residents.

“These people could be living in a mansion or they’ll sleep on a mat on the floor. They want to see out their court case. You may as well put them in situation where we’re addressing public health needs and creating humane conditions. You can take away someone’s tent, but they’ll stay there on a mat.”

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