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Mexican Official Tries To Move Asylum-Seekers Stuck In Tent Camps

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In Matamoros, Mexico, more than 1,500 asylum-seekers are living in squalid conditions in a tent encampment and Mexican officials want them to move.

Officials recently took a page from the Trump administration and threatened to separate asylum-seekers from their children.

A Mexican child welfare official, holding a clipboard, addressed a crowd of asylum-seekers last week in a sprawling tent encampment near the Gateway International Bridge that connects Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas.

In a video taken by an asylum-seeker, an official tells them the encampment is no place for children and that he has the authority to take custody of their kids if they don't move to a new government run shelter, but the parents object.

An asylum-seeker in the crowd asks the official how would he like it if his child was forcibly taken away from him, and tells the official what he's threatening to do is considered kidnapping.

The child welfare agency in Matamoros did not respond to repeated requests for an interview with NPR. In written statements to the media, the agency said not a single child was taken. The agency said the social workers who went to the encampment just wanted to offer the families space at a new shelter.

Erin Thorn Vela, with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said she hopes Mexican officials do keep families together.

One of the asylum-seekers tents located near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas.
Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

"I was really surprised that this tactic would be taken of essentially a new type of family separation on the Mexican side," Thorn Vela said.

She points out that the Trump administration got a lot of blowback over its family separation policy, which aims at discouraging migrant families from illegally crossing into the U.S.

"I would think that they would see how this is really not a good idea and it's not going to end in a good result to threaten people," Thorn Vela said.

Many migrants have been forced to wait in Mexico — sometimes for months — for their hearings in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy.

Migrants say they prefer to live in the encampment where they feel protected by American aid groups and have access to legal help.

They were largely ignored by the U.S. and Mexican governments, that is, until last Friday when Mexican officials decided they wanted to clear the encampment and move the migrants.

Some of the asylum-seekers live in tents and others sleep under bushes or on the streets. Many bathe in the Rio Grande.

Matamoros Mayor Mario Lopez said he's concerned about public health — and the migrants' well-being.

An asylum-seeker washes a child in the Rio Grande near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, in September. They were sent back under the "Remain in Mexico" program.
Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

"I want to convey confidence that we're treating them well," Lopez said. "And that we have our doors open to migrants and help them so they can get to their destination, which is the United States."

Lopez said the government would not forcibly move asylum-seekers to the shelter, but panic has still spread.

Migrants said some of the child welfare officials went tent to tent looking for children. One Honduran mother said she refused to let them take her son.

"I told them I couldn't, that I wouldn't let my kid go, and they told me I didn't know the laws here in Mexico," said the woman.

She said an official handed her a notice to appear at a child welfare office, but she said had no intention of going. She asked that we not use her name because she fears retribution.

Like most migrants camped out at the bridge, she said she has no plans of going to the shelter, which is a converted gymnasium that can house 300.

NPR was able to go inside the shelter, which is mostly housing new arrivals, and is only about one-third full.

Asylum-seekers pass their time in an encampment near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas in September. Most of them have been sent back under the "Remain in Mexico" program.
Veronica G. Cardenas for Texas Public Radio

Another Honduran mother, who decided to go to the new shelter, said she was happy to come to Matamoros with her son.

She said they receive three meals a day, there are restrooms, an on-site doctor and that they're able to sleep in a bed.

Back at the encampment, advocates including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Texas Civil Rights Project, say they will continue to monitor the situation to make sure the human rights of migrants are respected.

Copyright 2019 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Relationships between police and the communities they serve are strained in many parts of the country. Michael Logan, a retired Michigan state police sergeant, says...

MICHAEL LOGAN: One of the things that I saw most immediately in my career early in law enforcement, and especially now, was the need for law enforcement to actively engage with the underrepresented community.

SIMON: Logan's one of the voters who sat down with us this week at Peggs (ph) diner in South Bend, Ind., to talk with Mayor Pete Buttigieg for our Off Script series where we bring presidential candidates and undecided voters together at the same table. Mayor Buttigieg has been criticized by some black residents of South Bend for not doing more about the issue. But he told Michael Logan he has a plan.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Police legitimacy and these relationships are important, I think, not only from the perspective of racial justice but from the perspective of public safety itself. What can we do about it? Well, one thing we know is we can promote programs that encourage that kind of relationship that officers uniquely are able to build in communities of color and on the ground. I always like to say that officers do best when they have the mentality almost of somebody like a candidate for city council - in other words, wanting to walk the neighborhood, build relationships, be viewed as a community problem-solver.

And we can do everything from citizens' police academies - we've got one of those that encourages residents to schedule classes to learn about how law enforcement works - to programs that get officers working with kids in athletic leagues and those kinds of things so that early in life there are those mentoring relationships.

We also, of course, need to make sure that we have more diverse officers on the department, which, frankly, has become harder, I think, since Ferguson. We're finding it harder and harder to find, in particular, young black men who can picture themselves in uniform. And so anything that we can do...

SIMON: This department has been criticized for that under your stewardship, hasn't it?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. We've had a real struggle with that...

SIMON: Yeah.

BUTTIGIEG: ...During my time as mayor, and it's happening in South Bend, but not only South Bend. It's really a national challenge.

SIMON: Former Sergeant, how does that strike you? Is this the kind of stuff you've heard from public officials before? Is there a nugget of something else there?

LOGAN: You know, Mr. Mayor, I think that's a great idea. But I honestly am curious as how that's sustainable because you've seen programs over the year, whether it's DARE, Keep Kids Off, you know, Say No To Drugs - all of those are very short-term solutions, and they're slogan-based. But in terms of the communities of color, there has to be a true cultural shift. I think that there's a way to do that, but it has to be continuous, and it has to be sustained. And you won't see the results of that for six or seven years. How do you address that?

BUTTIGIEG: Yeah. Well, first of all, I think it's worth investing federal dollars in this, even if it's expensive. So that gets to who pays for it. But I also really agree that we're talking about deep, interwoven cultural issues here. And sometimes, these issues are laid at the feet of law enforcement. Really, it's about a lot of different things. It's about everything from economic empowerment to education. A lot of times, it's also about whether we are responding to mental health and disability issues in the right way. We've seen a lot of racial disparity in that. So I don't want all of this to be kind of pinned on the law enforcement side of the house. But it is clear that there's a lot more we can do.

And I also think this is why it would be a good idea to have a national police academy in the same way that we have a West Point for the Army or Annapolis for the Navy that really builds out what the future of policing is going to look like and trains people not just in the sort of tactics but in these kind of cultural questions.

SIMON: How does that strike you?

LOGAN: I think that's a great idea. But, again, the question is always going to be - and I know you can't answer this right now, Mr. Mayor - how it's funded because, honestly, most people, unless they're directly affected by what's going on - sort of the mentality of, well, what happens on the south side of South Bend - it doesn't affect me, so why should I really care?

SIMON: And, you know, Mr. Mayor, people don't say, oh, yeah, please let me pay more taxes.

BUTTIGIEG: (Laughter).

SIMON: I would love - I would welcome the opportunity to pay for a national police academy.

BUTTIGIEG: (Laughter) Yeah. But here's the thing. We need to do some of this work. And as a country, I think over my lifetime, we have seen the consequences of disinvesting, taking money out of education, out of infrastructure, out of health and mostly using it not to spend on other priorities with the exception of war, some of which could've been avoided. But a lot of it was spent just to cut taxes. And it was to cut taxes on the wealthiest, who needed it the least.

Things cost money. You can't get something for nothing. But there's a way to do this without going back to the tax levels we saw in the '60s in the U.S. But it is going to require asking some to do more. And we can't expect to thrive or to grow in safety, in health, in education, in any of the things that make America successful and competitive if we're not willing to gather that revenue and put it to good use.

SIMON: Pete Buttigieg in conversation with retired police detective Sergeant Michael Logan. And you can watch our whole conversation at npr.org/offscript. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.