[EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information]
McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — On the coldest day so far this winter, two nonprofits broke ground on a new shelter for vulnerable migrants waiting in the dangerous Mexican border town of Reynosa to try to seek asylum in the United States, Border Report has learned.
The rare cold blast on Monday caused tents to blow away and South Texas volunteers to scramble to pass out blankets and warm clothing. It also emphasized the need for more permanent living quarters for the thousands of migrants living south of the border, volunteers told Border Report.
The Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, in collaboration with the faith-based Kaleo International Organization, hopes to raise $75,000 to complete the construction of the new facility in Reynosa, Sidewalk School Co-Director Felicia Rangel-Samponaro said.
“It’s not going to be a huge shelter but it will at least get the kids out of the plaza,” Rangel-Samponaro said Monday morning via phone from Reynosa, where she was passing out gas heaters and jackets to migrants living in a downtown plaza where temperatures dipped overnight Sunday into the 30s, down from the 90s on Saturday.
Once completed, she said, the new shelter will house about 300 migrants. It is being built to help asylum-seeking families with children, Black asylum-seekers and single women.
“This shelter is very necessary,” she said. “The conditions of living inside the Reynosa encampment are very bad. The kids shouldn’t be living out there. So we are building them dorms to sleep in.”
The facility is being constructed as the Biden administration has restarted the controversial “Remain in Mexico” policy, formally called Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP.)
Although MPP has not yet begun again in South Texas, volunteers here are gearing up and several groups are trying to provide more adequate living facilities for asylum-seekers.
The Sidewalk School along with Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, and other nonprofits like Team Brownsville and Solidarity Engineering are working with the City of Reynosa to renovate a baseball field a couple of miles west of the downtown plaza where migrants can move their tents in the upcoming months, volunteers say.
The city has already started building a wall around it with the help of migrants staying at the Senda de Vida shelter in Reynosa, said Erin Hughes, an engineer and co-founder of the humanitarian-based nonprofit Solidarity Engineering. Her firm is proposing site plans for renovations, including showers and bathroom facilities at the baseball field.
Once completed the site could hold up to 2,000 asylum seeking migrants, Gabriela Zavala of the Asylum Seeker Network of Support, a nonprofit that is helping to coordinate plans for the camp, told Border Report on Tuesday.
Rangel-Samponaro says the Sidewalk School has given donations to help build the wall around the open-air field, which is a priority in order to help provide a safer environment for the migrants.
The baseball field is located near an open landfill in a city where drug cartels and factions are constantly warring and where streets sometimes become the backdrop for gun battles.
“Because of the danger element in the plaza de las Americas, because it’s so close to the bridge and organized crime is so prevalent there and it’s out in the open and no fence, people felt it was better to have a more secure safer area for the migrants,” said Andrea Rudnik, volunteer coordinator for the nonprofit Team Brownsville, based in Brownsville, Texas.
Rudnik said Team Brownsville paired up with Angry Tias and Abuelas and sent gloves, hats, jackets and sweatsuits to as many vulnerable migrant families living in Reynosa in anticipation of the overnight cold front.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities, told Border Report they are “working on it” and “it will be a couple of weeks” at least before migrants can move their belongings in Reynosa.
Pimentel also has donated land from her convent in the nearby city of Matamoros to be used as the site for another migrant encampment to be located, should asylum-seekers be sent back to Mexico from Brownsville, Texas.
During the Trump administration, upwards of 5,000 migrants flooded the border city of Matamoros after being sent back to wait for their asylum proceedings.
No construction has begun at the site in Matamoros, called the Santa Rosa facility, but it does have an existing fence, said Hughes, whose organization is also helping with the site plan for that encampment.
Zavala said the NGOs are meeting weekly and trying to prepare for an influx in Matamoros and to avoid a crowded and haphazard camp from springing up, as had existed before when the Trump administration first implemented MPP in 2019.
Hughes said currently there are hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants scattered throughout Matamoros and that number could rise dramatically if MPP resumes in South Texas.
The Biden administration is being forced by a federal court order to restart MPP after the states of Texas and Missouri sued to have the program restarted.
“Matamoros still has a big asylum-seeking population. That’s not where most of the expulsions are happening and they’re flying under the radar but in Matamoros, there are still big populations of asylum seekers,” Hughes said.
The migrant shelter in Matamoros, Dulce de Refugio, is full, with 300 asylum-seekers. Rudnik said her organization increased their donations of jackets and warm clothing to the shelter prior to the cold front.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.