Migrants at refugee camp in Matamoros brave ice and snow to be ‘1st in line’ into US

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A group of migrants living at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, clamor around a vehicle where Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, on Feb. 14, 2021, passes out extra blankets and jackets and sleeping bags to help them brave wintry mix of ice and sleet that struck the region that night. Most of the 1,000 migrants stayed in the camp in their tents overnight, she told Border Report. (Courtesy Photo)

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — As frigid Arctic air, snow and ice descended upon the Rio Grande Valley, over 1,000 migrants living in a refugee camp in the northern Mexican city of Matamoros, across from Brownsville, Texas, toughed out the wintry weather in their tents for fear of losing out on an opportunity to be allowed into the U.S.

Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which coordinates volunteer efforts for the migrants, told Border Report on Monday that the asylum-seekers did not want to leave the confines of the camp. She said she and other volunteers took blankets and sleeping bags to them in an effort to help keep them as warm as possible.

“They didn’t want to move,” Pimentel said.

Most of the migrants in the camp are asylum-seekers who have been living on the banks of the Rio Grande for over a year, put there as part of the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program (MPP), which forced them to remain in Mexico during their U.S. immigration court proceedings.

Photos sent from Pimentel to Border Report show groups clamoring around volunteer vehicles vying to get additional supplies. But as ice rained from the skies, the flimsy tents and muddy ground soon became coated with sheets of ice.

These photos provided by Sister Norma Pimentel shows the icy conditions at the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, where asylum-seekers live in tents on the banks of the Rio Grande. (Special to Border Report)

The National Weather Service issued the first Winter Storm Watch for the region in a decade as a wintry mix of ice, freezing rain and some snow hit deep South Texas and northern Mexico overnight Sunday.

On Monday morning, temperatures were in the 20s. A hard freeze was predicted for overnight into Tuesday morning with temperatures expected to plummet into the teens. In Matamoros and along the Gulf Coast, winds felt even colder as moisture from the Gulf of Mexico mixed into the air.

Throughout the region, roadways and bridges were undrivable and sheets of ice, shops and retailers were shuttered and hundreds of thousands of people were without electricity.

On Thursday, volunteers began distributing extra jackets, hats, gloves and plastic tarps for so the migrants could cover their flimsy tents in an effort to keep out the wind and freezing rain.

“We tell them the best way is to bundle up and be inside their tents that are freezing,” Pimentel told Border Report last week in anticipation of the inclement weather that has struck a wide swath of the United States and into deep South Texas and northern Mexico.

It’s very difficult to be there in the camp. Not only is the weather tough but also they fear for their lives.”

Sister Norma Pimentel, Catholic Charities of the RGV

“The people there suffer a lot. They’re hurting. They’re super cold and we just hope they can keep themselves as warm as possible,” she said. “It’s very difficult to be there in the camp. Not only is the weather tough but also they fear for their lives.”

ABOVE: crowd of asylum-seekers wait for food on Dec. 29, 2019, at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. BELOW: Families are seen near their tents at the camp on Jan. 17, 2020. (Border Report File Photos/Sandra Sanchez)

This is the largest refugee camp anywhere on a United States border and the numbers have been increasing daily since President Joe Biden won the election. Every day, hundreds more have appeared at the camp — most from the Central American countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala — hoping that they will be allowed to claim asylum in the United States.

But all asylum proceedings were halted in March due to the coronavirus pandemic and cross-border restrictions remain in place allowing only “essential” workers to cross.

Pimentel said that many who have been showing up at the camp lately were families that had been living in the camp but had given up hope and returned to their home countries or were living in the interior of Mexico. Now they have returned to be closer to the “front of the line” as the Biden administration has announced that starting Friday some migrants will be allowed to cross into the United States.

Volunters with organizations like Catholic Charities and Team Brownsville and Angry Tias & Abuelas and Global Response Management and Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers have been helping to provide meals, clothes, tents and essentials for the migrants since July 2019 when MPP was implemented in the region.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday said that batches of 300 migrants per day will cross. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, told Border Report that the refugees will cross at these three ports of entry: San Ysidro, California; El Paso, Texas, and Brownsville, Texas.

“The numbers have increased. A lot of the people who are now introducing themselves into the camp, were at the camp at one point and possibly there for a while and maybe moved out and rented an apartment with other families as a way to protect themselves and be safer in another space. And so now, with the changes of the new administration, they’re hopeful that now maybe they’re going to have a chance to enter and they think getting themselves into that specific space of where the camp is maybe an opportunity for them to get to be first in line,” Pimentel said.

The bitter cold weather is expected to last for several days.

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