For 10 months, Francisco Caal lived with hundreds of other asylum seekers in a tent city across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas, forced by President Trump to wait there for the U.S. government to decide his fate.
He’d fled Guatemala with his wife, Jeannethe Trujillo, he says, after he endured death threats and a bullet in the gut, the couple fearing for their lives. When they reached the U.S. border and asked for asylum, immigration agents turned them back because of the Trump administration’s 2019 “Remain in Mexico” policy for asylum seekers. They waited and worried in a squalid limbo, spending their days inside a homemade from ragged tarps lashed to the camp’s chain-link fence, all with a view of U.S. soil, just 70 feet away.
They prayed that Covid-19 wouldn’t get them before they were allowed to cross to “the other side,” as the camp dwellers, who came from Central America, Cuba, Haiti, and Venezuela, call the U.S. “We just put ourselves in God’s hands,” Caal, 52, said on Feb. 24, sitting on a log inside the makeshift home as his wife cooked some black beans over their little fire pit.
On Feb. 25, a month after President Biden ordered an end to Remain in Mexico, aid workers told Caal and Trujillo to report to a United Nations clinic in the camp for a Covid test and be ready to move. A few hours later, they were among the first 27 people allowed to cross the Gateway International Bridge to Brownsville. As of March 2, more than 500 had followed, about three-quarters of the camp’s population, according to UN agencies coordinating the effort in Mexico.
Emptying the camp would eliminate a symbol of Trump’s immigration crackdown and count as an early success for Biden, who aims to undo his predecessor’s most draconian anti-immigrant policies. The move comes as the new administration prepares for a battle to pass a sweeping immigration reform bill and as it draws criticism for reopening a Trump-era shelter for migrant children in Texas.
Meanwhile, the number of migrants crossing the southern border is surging. Border agents have detained 70,000 people illegally crossing per month since October, a sharp increase from a year ago.
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