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Border Officials Keep Sending Asylum Seekers With Disabilities, Illnesses Back To Mexico

An encampment a few yards away from the Rio Grande where more than 2,000 people who are seeking asylum in the U.S. live is seen in Matamoros, Mexico, on Wed. Jan. 29, 2020.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for Texas Public Radio
An encampment a few yards away from the Rio Grande where more than 2,000 people who are seeking asylum in the U.S. live is seen in Matamoros, Mexico, on Wed. Jan. 29, 2020.

Charlene D’Cruz pulled 30 cents out of her pocket and asked her clients if they’ll need it to get across a turnstile at the Gateway International Bridge that connects Brownsville to Matamoros.

D’Cruz is a U.S. immigration attorney and has worked with asylum seekers in Matamoros for several months. She’s with an organization called Lawyers for Good Government

She recently walked with her asylum seeking clients to the midpoint of the international bridge.

“I’m once again presenting families who have children with special needs and disabilities,” D’Cruz said. “We had, yesterday, three families, two with children who have autism spectrum disorder and a little girl with Lissencephaly, who is also developmentally disabled.”

Lissencephaly is a brain disorder and people with the disorder have a life expectancy of 10 years. The little girl is 7.

“We’re back on the bridge hoping CBP does the right thing and takes them out of MPP because they do not belong in MPP,” D’Cruz said.

The Trump Administration has sent more than 55,000 asylum seekers back to Mexico under the Remain in Mexico policy, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, to wait there instead of the U.S., as their claims for asylum unfold in U.S. immigration court.

Migrants with health issues are supposed to be exempt from the program, but in many cases, the administration has refused to grant exemptions for sick migrants.

This was the second time D’Cruz tried to get these specific families and children into the U.S. and out of MPP. The routine is always the same: she stands with them at the midpoint of the bridge in front of U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers for hours — as people commute from one side of the border to the other — while they wait for a response.

D’Cruz has done this with many other families and almost every time the families are sent back to Mexico. 

When MPP rolled out, the federal government issued guidelines on how to enforce the program. These guidelines principles say that people with known physical or mental health issues are exempt from MPP

D’Cruz said, in practice, that has not been the case.

“It’s just ridiculous that we keep playing this game where, you know, that these folks don’t belong in here. Why are you making me keep coming back?” D’Cruz said.

The families stand single file behind D’Cruz and Vidya Ramanathan, a pediatrician.

Ramanathan said some of the families and children at the bridge with them are living at a tent encampment of more than 2,000 asylum seekers in Matamoros.

When Ramanathan evaluated the children, they told her that living in the camp has caused them fear and anxiety. Some of them have seizure disorders, which Ramanathan said are intensified by the conditions at the camp.

“The fact that they have disabilities means that being in those encampments puts them at high risk to further trauma and further medical conditions, and so I think that is why it’s built into the MPP that they should be allowed into the United States,” Ramanathan said.

D’Cruz has tried getting exemptions for families and children so they may receive medical care in the United States and be removed from MPP, but they’ve continued to be sent back to Mexico to wait for their immigration court hearings.

In January, D’Cruz worked with a Cuban asylum-seeker named Yodalys. She’s a cancer survivor and a parasite is slowly making her blind — a condition that should make her exempt from the Remain in Mexico policy.

Yodalys’ journey to get to the U.S.-Mexico border from Cuba hasn’t been easy. She said she was detained in Mexico for 50 days. As her condition worsened, she said it has been hard to get around Matamoros.

“I couldn’t cross the street,” Yodalys said. “I had to sit down and ask a kid who was about to cross the street for help.”

Yodalys said she’s gone to the local hospital, but the medical condition she has isn’t common, and she wasn’t able to get treatment. She said she left Cuba because she is being politically persecuted and that she was kidnapped on the way here.

“They took my passport, everything,” Yodalys said. “I can’t return to Cuba, I can’t. Every day I’m here, I’m dying.”

Yodayls’ children are in the U.S. They left Cuba a few years before her. She said her biggest fear is that she’ll never see them again.

“I say I have to get to my son, I have to get to know my grandson. I have to do it,” Yodalys said. “I have to return to be able to touch my son, even if it’s just to touch and not be able to see him. All I ask is that I be able to see my son, my daughter and my grandson.”

D’Cruz tried to get Yodalys out of MPP five times and every single time CBP told her she must return to Mexico.

She was eventually removed from the program on Feb. 3 and allowed to wait in the U.S. with family members as her asylum claim unfolds in immigration court.

Yodalys is one of the lucky ones. She has an attorney who is trying to get her into the U.S. and exempt from MPP. Others living at the tent encampment with similar health issues aren’t so lucky.


CBP officers stand at the International Bridge in Matamoros.
Credit Reynaldo Leaños Jr. | Texas Public Radio
CBP officers stand at the International Bridge in Matamoros.

Back on the bridge, D’Cruz and her clients with disabilities have now been waiting for about two hours to learn whether they will be exempt from MPP. 

What happened next on the bridge baffled the group.

A CBP officer with the last name “Cabrera” on his uniform approached D’Cruz and Ramanathan and took a picture of them with his cellphone. He didn’t ask permission or explain himself.

He stepped away and returned later to tell D’Cruz her clients will not be removed from MPP.

She asked who made that decision.

“I’m not answering any questions,” Cabrera said.

“Was it Mr. Ortiz?” D’Cruz asked before Cabrera walked away

Mr. Ortiz is the Port Director, who activists and attorneys say has the discretion and authority to parole someone into the U.S. 

Ortiz declined to be interviewed for this story.

D’Cruz then turned to her clients and explained what just happened. She told them they’ll have to return back to Mexico, again, but promises to try again. 

After saying goodbye to the families, D’Cruz went to the CBP office to ask who made the decision and why Cabrera took their photo.

D’Cruz, Ramanathan and a local protester waited inside the office, then Cabrera entered. They asked to speak to his supervisor and Cabrera told the group he was the chief on duty and he was “done discussing this.”

“You’re not going to talk to my supervisor. Right now we no longer have any business with you, and you need to leave the premises,” said Cabrera.

CBP officials said they don’t comment on specific cases or on decisions of who gets removed from MPP. 

A spokesperson for the agency also said it’s not uncommon for CBP to photograph incidents on the bridge for “historical or documentary reasons.”

The next day, D’Cruz tried crossing the families a third time, this time also with a two-year-old boy who has Down Syndrome, Microcephaly and a heart condition. 

“Back home he’d get therapy,” the child’s mother said. “Doctors back home said with the therapies he’d be able to learn to walk more quickly, but right now he doesn’t walk and he doesn’t speak.”

The mother hasn’t been able to get the proper treatments for her son while in Matamoros for monetary reasons and said she doesn’t feel safe waiting in Mexico.

As the families and children made their way to the bridge, the routine remains the same, they wait for a decision from officials.

They’re once again told they must continue to wait in Mexico. 

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.

Reynaldo Leanos Jr. covers immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border for Texas Public Radio.