American Dream

Clinging to hope of a life in the U.S., migrants in this Mexican camp united to practice their own brand of democracy

A boy in a migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. (Photos by César Rodríguez for The Washington Post)

[Editor’s note: This story was reported before the coronavirus hit Mexico. There were no known cases of covid-19 in the camp at the time the story was published.]

The leaders sat in lawn chairs, slippery with dust, beside the Rio Grande. Above them, sagging clotheslines crosshatched the sky. They had arranged themselves in a circle. Here, at least, everyone was equal. As the council made its way through the day’s agenda, the wind carried with it the sounds of the camp — children’s laughter, a baby’s cry, the call of the vendor with the rickety red cart: “Helados, helados, solo cinco pesos.”

The council was meeting by request of Elizabeth Cavazos, a retired mental health professional who, as part of her volunteer work with the Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley, relayed information from officials here in Matamoros, Mexico, to the residents of the migrant camp that has arisen along the city’s northern shore. All of the migrants had the same goal — to be granted asylum in the United States. They had fled violence, indigence and threats to their lives, and undertaken perilous journeys through the desert. They had turned themselves over to the U.S. Border Patrol and been given dates for preliminary hearings (which, because of the pandemic, have all been pushed back to late June at the earliest). And then — living in tents, surviving with donated clothes and food — they began to wait.

In late January, the migrants began to organize. By this point, they had arranged themselves more or less according to country of origin. Mexicans lived closest to the river; Hondurans, next to the Cubans, were farthest to the south; Guatemalans camped by the stadium stairs, and so on. They coordinated a political system, electing a leader from each national community to serve on a governing council that would oversee communication, resource distribution, a cleaning schedule and responses to camp-wide matters as they arose. The leaders set up groups on WhatsApp on their smartphones to provide alerts to everyone in their communities at once.

A woman arranges flowers in the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico. The day before this photo was taken was Valentine’s Day, and volunteers gave presents to the migrants.

Maura Sammon, a Pennsylvania physician volunteering in the camp, described her impression of its organization. “They’ve created a spontaneous representative democracy,” she told me. “I’ve never heard of anything like it before.”

Today marked the first time that all of the elected representatives of each of the eight main countries represented in the camp — Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador and Cuba — were coming together. Few of the representatives here have direct experience with leadership, let alone democracy; even the countries that are ostensibly democratic are known for their corruption.

Some of the leaders were fleeing gangs. Others, such as Perla, the Nicaraguan pharmacist, were known political dissidents and had been personally targeted by their nations’ ruling parties. (All of the leaders I interviewed feared retribution against them or their family members, and spoke to me on the condition that they be identified by only their first or middle names.) It seemed to me that the consequences of a lack of true democracy motivated each of these council members to seek asylum in the United States — and to take their own experiment in self-governance so seriously.

Cavazos’s Spanish is imperfect, but she was able to get her meaning across. Matamoros officials had noticed that the residents have been cutting branches off the camp’s trees, and they needed to stop immediately. Various leaders jumped in, arguing that firewood was a necessity. Without it, the migrants would freeze at night and would have no way to cook their meals.

“Yo sé,” Cavazos said, nodding: I know. She doesn’t make the rules, she emphasized, but the leaders had to convey this edict to their communities. “They say anyone who is caught cutting trees will be deported immediately.”

The council members sighed. The Guatemalan leader whispered to the representative from Venezuela, They’re not going to like this.

Cavazos moved to the next matter on her list. “And another thing: The government says that food can’t be sold here, because of the health code.”

Iris, the Honduran, shook her head. “That simply won’t work,” she said. “People depend on the income.” Iris was the council’s líder de los líderes, the leader of the leaders, and often responded first to Cavazos’s questions.

Vladimir, the Salvadoran, was standing, leaning against Iris’s chair. He is a tall, serious man in his 40s, with a broad face and spiked, glossy hair. Among the leaders, he had been in the camp the longest.

“We’ll discuss it,” he said. “We’ll come up with a solution. Just like for everything else.”

A family plays in the camp. A sign in back reads “Happy travels.”

Migrants prepare seeds and small trees so they can grow, plant and reforest the camp.

A woman hangs clothes out to dry.

A man plays with his child.

A poster promotes participation in a census in the camp.

Children and teenagers play sports such as soccer and volleyball in the evening.

When I first arrived in the camp, during an unseasonably cold week in February, I knew only what I had read in the news — that this dusty, roughly three-acre plot, contained by the Rio Grande and a beggar-bordered highway, had been allotted by the Mexican government for the 2,500 migrants waiting in Matamoros, right across from the South Texas city of Brownsville. At first, newcomers were setting up camp in the open, under the Gateway International Bridge; however, as tensions rose between migrants and locals, the Mexican federal government ordered the migrants to move to an empty stadium a stone’s throw from the river and provided members of the nation’s marines to protect them.

No one wanted the migrants to be in Matamoros — least of all the migrants themselves. They had been affected by a new Trump administration policy called the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as “Remain in Mexico.” Under this policy, enacted in January 2019, asylum seekers could no longer await their court dates on U.S. soil, a practice that administration officials such as Stephen Miller have termed “catch and release.” Instead, they must return to Mexico, a country they passed through on their journeys north, to wait for their hearings. Wait times for each of the three steps of the asylum application process last several months; intervals, like migrants’ legal fates, seem to be dictated by the whims of individual judges.

And it’s not just bloated bureaucracy that contributes to the migrant camp’s ballooning population. MPP dictates that to be granted asylum in the United States, applicants must demonstrate that they applied, and were rejected, for asylum in every country through which they passed on their journeys north. When I was there in February, this had resulted in protracted wait times for migrants, who were forced to navigate the bureaucracy of Mexican migration before they were even eligible to apply for asylum in the United States.

Amid fear and trauma and uncertainty, the council had tasked itself with carving out the contours of familiar life.

That is, the Trump administration’s policies had created a situation in which many migrants were waiting in Mexico for eight months or longer, sustained only by the hope that they’d be among the lucky few to get a shot at the American Dream. In the meantime, they continued to eke out some semblance of normalcy amid nearly unfathomable uncertainty.

Before I arrived in the camp, I expected signs of life in transition: clotheslines, makeshift stoves, bags of belongings strewn between tents. What I didn’t expect were the signs of community, of a structured society rising from chaos. Walking along dry, winding paths, I saw small businesses: a tortilla stand, pastries for sale, barber shops, a nail salon. (Nailed to a tree in the Mexican section was a cardboard sign with a message written in Sharpie: “MANICURES – PEDICURES – ACRYLICS – CALL THE VENEZUELAN BY THE TENNIS COURT.”) Next to a health clinic run by American volunteers was a preschool run by a migrant from Honduras and a pharmacy run by Perla, the Nicaraguan leader, and a migrant from El Salvador. Throughout the camp, six migrant-run tiendas (stores) distributed goods — tortilla flour, menstrual pads, shampoo — to anyone who needed them. On the ground not far from Tienda 2 was a nine-foot square of dirt cordoned off by rope, with a handwritten sign tacked to a tree: “GARDEN FOR HONDURANS ONLY.”

When the photographer for this story, César Rodríguez, joined me, he too was struck by the sense of underlying order. Walking through for the first time, he told me that, of all the refugee camps he’d been to, this one felt different. “It feels like ...” He paused, watching a small child sail by on a tricycle, and smiled. “It feels like a village.”

After the council meeting, Cavazos stood next to the pharmacy, reflecting on her time in the camp. She joined the Angry Tias and Abuelas in June 2018, she told me, about two weeks after the organization officially formed. (The “tías and abuelas” — Spanish for aunts and grandmothers — are seven women who live in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley and volunteer to provide crucial services for migrants in the camp.) At the time, Cavazos said, migrants were still living under the bridge, and life was chaotic. Now, however, nonprofits working together have been able to provide food, shelter and clothing.

“I saw a shift in the camp once people’s basic needs were met, when they didn’t have to worry about where their next meal was coming from,” she said. “It allowed for that mental energy to be used towards community-building.”

Later, I commented to Cavazos that I found it interesting that of the eight leaders, two are women — and that the idea for the council came from a woman. Most of the countries the leaders come from are patriarchal, where the effects of machismo are significant. In many of the poorest, most remote regions of Central America, it’s uncommon for girls to attend school, or even learn to read. In those societies, women are typically expected to be wives and mothers, not political leaders.

“The camp is an extension of home,” Cavazos explained. And in the cultures these migrants are coming from, she told me, “there is patriarchy in society, but women rule the home.”

I realized that it would be inaccurate to view the camp residents’ situation, as I had been doing, up to that point, as predominantly political. Yes, every person there was seeking asylum. But what united them transcended politics. They were united by departure and loss. Amid fear and trauma and uncertainty, the council had tasked itself with carving out the contours of familiar life. And so, viewed this way, it made perfect sense that this work — the work of home building, of caring for the vulnerable — had been undertaken by women.

In the camp, a few migrants cut hair for half the price of what it would cost in the city of Matamoros.

A child in the camp, which has a couple of makeshift schools. Some children don't go, however, and instead just wander around the camp.

A mother and daughter.

A view of the crossing point between Matamoros and Brownsville, Tex.

Mexican migrants gather every morning to see if they can cross to the United States that day.

A family washes clothes in the Rio Grande.

One of the most important services the council provides is communication — and the tamping down of misinformation. The migrants are desperate for good news and seize on hopeful reports they hear from Facebook and one another. “We’re constantly having to combat rumors that their asylum case will only take nine days, or that MPP has ended,” Cavazos said. Once the council formed, the leaders spent much of their energy stifling the false information that moved throughout the camp, swelling and shape-shifting as it spread.

The council owed its very existence to a rumor. In late January, word got around that the American government had issued a temporary declaration allowing all Guatemalans to enter the United States. No one I talked to was sure how the rumor started, or what — if any — seed of truth it might have contained. Some said it was related to the “safe third country” agreement the United States signed with Guatemala in July; others speculated that some migrants had misunderstood the noisy clamor generated by an activist protest on the Texan side of the bridge. Regardless of the rumor’s origin, though, its result was clear: chaos.

“Everyone ran to the gate with their suitcases, their bags, their passports, everything,” Iris, the leader of the leaders, recalled. Mexican border patrol agents struggled to contain the chaos, and local police arrived quickly. Edel, who is married to the Salvadoran leader, Vladimir, knew that if this kind of thing were to happen again, the migrants were at risk of angering the government — which had up to that point provided them with space, protection and resources such as porta-potties and water tanks.

Edel knew that the Mexican government was keeping tabs on its citizens within the camp. An immigration official regularly came to update the list of Mexicans staying there, and as a result the Mexican community kept a census of its own population, sorted by date of arrival.

After the rush to the border that day, Edel, a soft-spoken woman with broad, angular features, decided that the rest of the migrants needed a system as well. “I said, ‘Mexico has a list — why not us?’ ” she recalled. “I realized that we needed to be able to cooperate, to organize, to clean the camp. And if at any moment any lawyers arrived to ask for any piece of information, we would have it.”

Edel is an organized businesswoman. Before they were forced to flee El Salvador, she and Vladimir made a good living running a shoe store in the city of Santa Ana. When they arrived at the camp, Edel set up the pupusa restaurant to earn money to start to pay off what her family owed to the smuggler who had transported them to Matamoros. The pupusería had become a community center of sorts, and Edel had gotten to know the other Salvadorans in the camp, as well as some migrants from other countries.

These connections came in handy. She went around the Salvadoran community, asking others to take the lead. “I said, ‘I have a notebook. If no one else is going to take the initiative, I will make a list of all of the Salvadoran families who are here in the camp.’ ” After doing so, she offered up the list to her neighbors, who asked her to be their leader.

Edel declined. She was too busy running the restaurant, she said, and, after sending her 11- and 14-year-old daughters across the border alone, she didn’t feel emotionally up to the task. Her husband became the Salvadorans’ leader, but Edel continued to mull over the idea of building a leadership structure that encompassed everyone in the camp.

One day, she mentioned the idea to Iris, who lived in a tent next to the pupusería. Iris had also recently sent two of her children across the bridge alone, and the two had increasingly sought out each other to share in their anxiety and grief.

Iris was sure that her faith would serve her — and all of the other migrants waiting for their asylum hearings: “God is like a lawyer for us.”

Iris is a striking woman in her mid-30s, a former cosmetics salesperson who speaks in a low, raspy voice. Her olive skin is dotted with freckles, and her dark hair glows red in the sun. Her 19-year-old daughter, Asly, who chose to stay with her, described her mother as “very attentive, very caring, but she does have her character when she has to fight someone.”

On the day I met Iris, she wore a strapless denim dress and dangly pompom earrings — a stark contrast to the people around her dressed in jeans and tattered T-shirts. She told me that after she sent her younger children across the border, she felt depressed and purposeless. “The place I was in psychologically, it was very dark.”

That changed when a preacher arrived. “He met with us, one by one, to tell us our purpose in life,” she told me, her blue eyes suddenly sparkling. “And he prophesied that I would be the Moses of my people.”

Suddenly, Iris said, she understood that, like Moses, she was meant to lead her people out of desperation. God had chosen her to lead other migrants through the desert and into the promised land: the United States. Now she saw striking parallels between her own life and that of the ancient prophet. While Moses was found along a river as an infant, she was discovered in the Rio Grande, trying to cross with her children. And while Moses was found by rulers who made life in Egypt unbearable for the Israelites, Iris was apprehended by Border Patrol officers, who make life unbearable for migrants like her.

“Moses was a child of Pharaoh, and I, too, was among bad people,” she explained. “God called me, just like He called Moses. I didn’t know I was going to be the leader of the council; it hadn’t been created yet. It didn’t even come to my mind that this committee would form, and that I would be, apart from the leader of Honduras, the leader of the leaders.” She said that her role had made her a target for kidnappers and thieves, and that she lay awake fearful every night as a result, reliving past traumas. Her left hand, she said, had been numb for three months.

Still, she is honored by the situation she has found herself in. When God speaks, she told me, you have no choice but to listen. In the end, she was sure that her faith would serve her — and all of the other migrants waiting for their asylum hearings. “God is like a lawyer for us. But in the end, He will be a judge.”

Iris’s lawyer in the United States, Jodi Goodwin, represents a number of the council’s leaders. Many of her clients live in the camp; the rest are asylum seekers living elsewhere in Matamoros. (Though no one knows exact numbers, experts say that there are thousands of migrants living in apartments and shelters across the city.)

Goodwin says that the prospects for migrants like Iris and Edel are dismal. Overall, less than 1 percent of applicants are granted asylum. The acceptance rate is higher for political refugees from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and lower for those from everywhere else. This is due to the fact that, to qualify for asylum, people must meet two criteria: First, they must establish “credible fear” of their own government, and second, they must prove that they would be persecuted according to one of five “protected grounds”— race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. In other words, the circumstances that cause the majority of migrants to flee their countries — extreme poverty and violence at the hands of gangs and cartels — do not qualify them for asylum in the United States.

There were ways to get around this, though. While I was in the camp, the petition of a young Honduran man whose entire family had been killed by gang members was granted. Goodwin told me that the immigration system under President Trump, however, is intentionally designed to keep migrants out.

Cathy Potter, another Rio Grande Valley-based attorney for a number of asylum seekers, says that this represents a significant change from all past administrations. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s first attorney general, “overturned literally decades of asylum law with elementarily-worded decisions,” Potter told me. Furthermore, she says, many immigration judges — who, she emphasizes, are employees of the attorney general and risk being fired if they do not follow his orders — are fundamentally ignorant regarding even the most basic facts about petitioners’ circumstances.

Goodwin explains that judges are required to view asylum applications “through the lens of the applicant.” For instance, even if the State Department deems a particular country relatively safe, judges must consider if an individual’s circumstances put her in danger. Goodwin, however, believes that this is often not done.

Edel and Vladimir’s situation, she says, was one such example of this. For years, their neighborhood had been controlled by the gang MS-13. In exchange for being left alone, the couple had agreed to three conditions: paying the gang $100 every month, letting gang members take anything they wanted from the shoe store, and ensuring that Edel’s brother, a police officer, would never visit. The family lived a comfortable life. Their daughters went to a Catholic school, and the family often went out to dinner and took beach vacations. (When Edel showed me a picture from a beach trip just last year, I was shocked. Unlike the exhausted, sallow-eyed woman before me, the Edel in the picture was radiant, hugging her daughters and beaming as Vladimir kissed her on the cheek.)

In August, she told me, a rival gang took control of the area and kidnapped Vladimir. They eventually released him, but only on the condition that he not report them to the police. He did report them, though, and when they found out, they told him that they would kill him unless he gave them $20,000. (El Salvador’s currency is the same as the United States’, but a dollar’s purchasing power is much higher there.) He and Edel didn’t have that kind of money, but they also knew it didn’t matter. They were sure Vladimir would be killed either way.

The gang gave them until Aug. 30 to leave the country. The family left on Aug. 29, two days after burying Vladimir’s mother, who had died after a fever. Edel and Vladimir left everything in Santa Ana — their property, their business, all the members of their extended families — and arrived in the Matamoros camp penniless. “My daughters were walking around without shoes,” Edel said, shaking her head. “Think of that! We ran a shoe store!”

The family thought that their asylum application was strong — after all, they had proof of the kidnapping and the ransom demand. But on their third court appointment, they were denied. “The judge here said, ‘Why didn’t you go to the city where your brother makes a living as a police officer?’ ” Edel told me. “But what they don’t understand is that if you move to a new place, you call attention to yourselves. And they just kill you because they don’t know you — you’re in an area that you’re not supposed to be.” She wiped a tear from her cheek. “If we return, we will be killed. I am sure of it.”

The people who are in the camp, she said, are the ones who cannot go back. “When the judge signs my deportation order, he is signing my death warrant.”

She and Vladimir are appealing the ruling. Iris, with Goodwin’s help, is doing the same. “Donald Trump is hurting all of us here,” Iris said. “In my country, you see impunity everywhere, dead people everywhere. We are looking for a refuge. We think that the United States is a country of law, where values are respected.”

A migrant takes a moment to enjoy the weather in the camp.

In the meeting with Elizabeth Cavazos, a heated discussion broke out about the fact that some people have not been following the cleaning schedule. Perla, the Nicaraguan representative, had an idea. No one would get donations — of shoes, say, or new clothes for a child — until they did their mandatory cleaning. “It would be much better to have a system to motivate the people,” she said. “If someone needs a pair of new shoes to go to court, they will certainly do their cleaning.”

Cavazos jumped in. “But if someone doesn’t have shoes? I mean, shouldn’t they get priority?”

Perla shook her head. Others jumped in, talking over each other. Joel, the Cuban leader, suggested a ranked priority system, then Iris suggested a variation. After a few moments, the group decided to table the discussion.

Cavazos moved to the next agenda item. “Let’s talk about what happens if the river floods, or if there’s a fire,” she said. “Do you think that the WhatsApp groups are sufficient to alert everyone in the case of an emergency?”

Everyone nodded. “This is why this group is so important,” Joel said. “Because every leader has daily body-to-body, arm-to-arm contact with everyone in their communities.” There were murmurs of assent.

And then, in a low, serious tone, Vladimir spoke up. He said to Cavazos, “We’d like to talk with someone who can tell us where to go in case we need to evacuate.”

“To the United States,” Perla said quickly. The tension broke; everyone laughed. And then, after a moment, there was silence.

Coming of Age in a Migrant Camp

A Young Woman’s Quinceañera

With the help of organizations from the United States, one teen girl celebrates a milestone, her quinceañera (15th birthday), with a dress, a cake and a party.

A boy who will be the chambelán, or the girl’s escort for the quinceañera, gets ready for the festivities.

The cake for the quinceañera.

A woman arranges the girl’s hair.

The teens outside a tent.

Guests greet the honoree and her escort at her quinceañera.

Emily Kaplan is a freelance journalist living in Brooklyn. Her work, which mostly covers immigration and education, has appeared in outlets including the New York Times, the Atlantic, Harper’s and Guernica.

Born and based in Tepic, Mexico, César Rodríguez is an internationally exhibited and published visual journalist. He recently completed his short film “Huicholes del Tabaco” and he is currently working on his second film, “If Hell Existed.”

Photo editing by Dudley M. Brooks. Design by Michael Johnson.