MATAMOROS – At a massive encampment near an international bridge along the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants from Honduras, Haiti, Venezuela and elsewhere have turned scraps of plastic, poster board and rope into makeshift homes.
Mexico’s immigration agency and a Catholic aid group are offering what may be at least a partial solution to conditions in this and other camps just south of Brownsville, Texas, where thousands of people wait with the hope of eventually entering the U.S. Last week, they opened a temporary outdoor shelter in Matamoros for up to 850 people.
On the first day, 500 Haitians who were living at an old gas station and about 150 people who camped by the river moved in.
The outdoor shelter appears woefully inadequate to accommodate the thousands of migrants living in the city and the others who arrive each day, Mexican authorities say it may expand.
For many, it's a step in the right direction.
“We are here, and we feel safer than how we were living over there exposed to everything,” said Luisa Hernandez, a 34-year-old Venezuelan woman who described being kidnapped in Mexico. For weeks, she had at the encampment near the river that stretches the length of four laps around an Olympic-sized track.
Hernandez's Venezuelan companion, who identified herself only as Luisa out of fears for her safety, said many prefer to stay in encampments because they fear being deported from the temporary shelter, despite assurances from Mexican officials that they faced no such risk.
The U.S. government's attempt to create a more orderly system for people to seek asylum by creating a new mobile app has not eased the situation at the camps in Matamoros, though other cities in Mexico have reported improvements.
Tijuana, the largest Mexican border city, reported less crowded migrant shelters after the app, CBP One, expanded to 1,450 appointments a day in May and made other changes. People with appointments line up three times a day at a Tijuana border crossing to San Diego, the same spot where authorities forcibly evicted migrants from a squalid camp in 2021.
Mexican authorities in Chihuahua state, which includes Ciudad Juarez, reported that migrant shelters fell to 60% occupancy after the changes in May.
But in Matamoros, a city of about 500,000 people known for drug-fueled violence, those who have coveted CBP One appointments become kidnapping targets. Filth is everywhere.
“We bathe in the Rio Bravo, which we were told is polluted,” said Edith Waldan, a 29-year-old Honduran who is now in the U.S. but kept her CBP One appointment a secret while in Matamoros because she feared being kidnapped. “We go hungry. We’re in the heat. We suffer, but there’s no other way."
Migrants may seek appointments from anywhere in northern Mexico — living as far south as Mexico City — but many still congregate in cities near the U.S. border.
U.S. authorities say it generally takes six to eight weeks of daily attempts to get an appointment on CBP One. Many migrants interviewed by The Associated Press said they have been trying around three months, though some said they have gotten lucky after only a few days of trying.
Mexico’s National Institute for Migration wants the large camp in Matamoros dismantled.
“The shelter is intended to provide a safe and appropriate space for those awaiting care for their asylum claims," the agency said in a statement.
The shelter sits in a parking lot and paved entrance to an unused hospital. Chalk outlines mark the placement of tents assigned to families. The shelter has security patrols, portable showers, toilets, hand washing stations and a kitchen.
Children flocked to a new playground that occupies one of the few grass patches at the shelter as parents lined up near the entrance to register last week. Volunteers cut holes in tarps to allow better ventilation as migrants treasured infrequent breezes.
The Sidewalk School, a group that offers medical services near the camp, tells migrants that conditions are better at the gated outdoor shelter than at the makeshift encampments where assaults have gone up, but it's a tough sell.
Joer, a 33-year-old Venezuelan who has lived at a camp for three months, said the shelter may suit families but he feels a curfew would undermine a sense of community.
Joer, who declined to give his full name for safety reasons, sells drinks, snacks, and cigarettes to migrants in an area that he says comes alive like “a boulevard” at night.
"Imagine yourself locked up at night and going around like a chicken coop as if you were a chicken,” Joer said, thinking of life inside the shelter.
The first day the shelter opened, Joer noted about 100 people left the encampment. But that same night, about 300 new migrants arrived.
Associated Press writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed.