Preparing for lunch hour, Maria* adds firewood to her wide mud stove shaded by a tarp shelter amid hundreds of similar structures home to asylum seekers like her, waiting for months in this camp with hopes to cross the border, just a few paces away, into the United States.
Maria, 38, serves grilled meat, rice, salad and tortillas for lunch to some of her neighbours encamped on the bank of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, just across from Brownsville, Texas.
Dozens of other cooking fires like Maria’s burn throughout the camp all day. Hundreds of mismatched camping tents cluster between the scraggly mesquite trees, picked clean for firewood. Families without tents sleep under plastic tarps hoisted over branches and tied to wooden stakes in the mud.
Maria eventually came here from El Salvador with her husband and nine-year-old son, with hopes of filing their asylum claims then moving on to join family in the US like many other Salvadorans who had come before. But when they arrived, the door had been shut.
Now, almost six months later, the American flag waves to Maria from behind a razor-wire fence, just across the river from where she does laundry. At this point, she says, all she can do is to keep waiting with hope.
“We have faith in God that the law will change and they will let all these people in,” Maria says, shielding smoke from her eyes as people stroll along the broad dirt pathway through the tents outside her stall. “That’s why we keep waiting here.”
Her family stays in the encampment with between 2,000 and 3,000 other migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom are waiting for their cases to make their way through the US courts. They are forced to wait in Mexico under the US government’s Migrant Protection Protocols programme, informally known as the “Remain in Mexico” programme. Many often must wait months.
When Maria’s family first arrived, they slept on the street until local churches brought tents and clothing to the growing population of stranded migrants and asylum seekers, most of whom are from Central America and Cuba.
Through a few odd jobs Maria’s family raised the money to start roasting corn for sale, and over the months built their business into the tiny restaurant that also serves eggs for breakfast and beans for dinner. During that time they saw a haphazard clumping of tents grow into the sprawling little shantytown it is today, supported almost entirely by charity from across the border.
“In a few month’s time an entire village has been created,” says Joyce Hamilton, 69, standing amid a cluster of tents where she and six other self-proclaimed “Angry Tias and Abuelas of Brownsville” stock supplies and staples that they buy for about $7,000 each Monday, shopping at a wholesale store with donated funds. “It’s amazing how much infrastructure has developed.”
But the encampment is not a village at all – at least not in the sense of comfort and permanency. The goal of most of the people here is not to stay forever, but to be allowed to enter the US.
Coalition of grassroots efforts
Under four massive awnings raised earlier this year by the Mexican government, a third section of the camp has grown with more orderly rows atop plastic flooring rather than the squiggling paths through brush and often mud in the first two sections.
In January, World Central Kitchen, a nongovernmental organisation, opened a large tented dining hall to harbour the efforts already made by local and incoming volunteers to feed everyone each night. Global Response Management, another NGO, offers basic medical services out of a trailer and a few shelters. A local woman runs a thrice-weekly primary school on a sidewalk on evenings here. A large portable filter-and-pump system draws clean water from the river.
Hundreds of families cook dinner on fires each night and wash themselves and their clothes with donated soaps in the nearby river. The Mexican government has supplied a phone-charging station and 50 portable bathrooms, and it plans to lay gravel to control the deep mud that follows the rain here.
This effort has happened without the large organisations that would typically mount responses to refugee crises. Instead, a coalition of grassroots groups has joined up under the guidance of a nearby nun.