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How a migrant family seeking asylum got stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border

In February 2020, Washington Post reporter Arelis R. Hernández walked across the bridge from Brownsville, Tex., to Matamoros, Mexico, two sister cities along the international border with the sparkling blue Rio Grande between them.

Sliding a few quarters into the turnstile, Arelis passed Mexican security officials, down the main road, past the town square, and up a dike, where a breathtaking sight opened before her eyes…

Hundreds of tents line the river: a makeshift refugee camp filled with thousands of asylum seekers from across Latin America forced by the Trump administration to wait in Mexico while they process their applications.

The migrants lived in a detention center in Matamoros, Mexico, in March 2020 while they and more than 2,000 others there applied for asylum in the United States.
The migrants lived in a detention center in Matamoros, Mexico, in March 2020 while they and more than 2,000 others there applied for asylum in the United States. (Veronica G. Cardenas / Reuters)

Smoke rose from the earthen stoves and the smell of fascination filled the air. Children kick up dust as the soccer balls move under their feet. Teenagers gather together to charge and stare at their phones. The whole family swam, bathed and washed their clothes in the river. But these mundane spectacles mask the brutal daily struggle for survival.

Danger lurks everywhere. The eyes follow all the time. The cartel dominates northern Mexico, and migrants are vulnerable. Robbery, rape and assault are commonplace.

There in the camp, Arelis met a woman named Nancy and her two teenage children.

And Nancy had a chilling story to tell about how she went through…

…and why she was afraid she would never get out.

Part 1

“We leave what we’ve built behind”

Arelis meets Nancy in the Matamoros migrant camp, and Nancy begins to share her story.

Nancy is seen in early 2021 inside the camp. The Washington Post agreed not to use her full name out of concern for her safety. Nancy’s son, David, delivers a pitcher of water as part of regular deliveries made to the camp with the help of aid groups and Mexican immigration officials. A cross was installed in August 2020 for a Guatemalan migrant who drowned in the Rio Grande. (Photo provided by Nancy)

After her family is the victim of a terrible crime, Nancy and her children flee El Salvador. Winding north by bus and on foot, they reached the United States.

But before reaching their destination, they were stopped – not by the Border Patrol, but by gangs.

After escaping from the gangs and arriving in the United States, Nancy and her children were sent back to the border to await a court date in Mexico. Exposure to the elements and reliance on aid workers for basic necessities, they navigate the harsh realities of camp life.

As the pandemic breaks out at the border, the Trump administration will suspend the asylum process indefinitely.

Stress and anxiety are frequent companions. Afraid someone might be listening, Nancy tried to withhold her entire story. Birthdays and Christmases mark the past – bitter reminders of times spent in limbo.

Nancy wonders, how long will she be stuck here?

PART 2

“The last time I crossed that bridge”

After President Biden took office, promising a new era of immigration policy, Arelis returned to the border to try to understand the resulting changes.

But what Arelis saw shook her – and gave her new insights into Nancy’s own journey.

A woman washes her hair while another does laundry at a migrant camp on February 10. Children look through a hole in the fence of an international bridge while waiting to arrive in the United States near Matamoros in February. Nancy is seen at the migrant camp in February. (Photo by Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, Nancy grows increasingly desperate.

As soon as she reached the breaking point, she received word that it might eventually be her turn.

After arriving in America, Nancy reveals to Arelis the full extent of her suffering – and what drove her to leave home.

Nancy and her children are reunited with family in Los Angeles, but their celebrations are overshadowed by uncertainty about their prospects of staying in the United States.

Nancy and her children, Andrea, 19, and David, 13, are seen at their new home in Los Angeles on April 8. They were allowed into the United States during their asylum claim. They are pending and currently live with her late husband's family. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)
Nancy and her children, Andrea, 19, and David, 13, are seen at their new home in Los Angeles on April 8. They were allowed into the United States during their asylum claim. They are pending and currently live with her late husband’s family. (Karla Gachet for The Washington Post)

About this story

“Marooned in Matamoros” was reported by Arelis R. Hernández. Additional reporting, sound production and sound design by Ted Muldoon. Translation and additional audio production by Cecilia Favela. Edited and Sound Directed by Robin Amer. Additional editing by Ann Gerhart, Maggie Penman, Emily Codik, Jenna Johnson, Victoria Benning, Courtney Kan, Matthew Callahan, Greg Manifold and Lucio Villa. Fact Check by Cecilia Favela and Emma Talkoff. Page design and development by Leo Dominguez. Graphics by Hannah Dormido. Photo editing by Karly Domb Sadof.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/interactive/2021/asylum-migrant-family-border/?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=wp_national | How a migrant family seeking asylum got stuck at the U.S.-Mexico border

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