MATAMOROS, Mexico (AP) – Migrants wanting to request asylum camped out on a U.S.-Mexico border bridge Thursday, leading to the closure of the span linking Matamoros to Brownsville, Texas.
Hundreds of migrants from Central America and elsewhere stretched out on the bridge before dawn, with some lying on mats or their coats. The crowd included children and babies.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that as of noon, the Gateway International Bridge remained closed. The migrants cleared the roadbed of the bridge, but remained blocking the sidewalk portion.
Traffic on the bridge “was temporarily halted at about 1:30 a.m. after a group of 250-300 migrants without entry documents had gathered at the midpoint of the Gateway Bridge,” according to the statement.
CBP said traffic was interrupted for a couple of hours before dawn at another span, the B&M International Bridge, but was later re-opened.
The migrants said they were tired of waiting to make their initial claims for asylum at the U.S. border crossing. Ernesto Banegas, 51, a construction worker from Honduras, said the protest started after rumors swept the migrant camp near the bridge that they might be allowed to enter the United States.
“We do not want to block traffic. We just want someone to talk to us, and this was the only way to do it,” said Banegas, who fled his country after his 5-year-old son was kidnapped.
“We just want them to tell yes or no,” said Carla Moradel, 21, who has been waiting for two months after crossing the river into the U.S. and being sent back.
“If they had clearly told me, ‘No,’ I would have gone back to Honduras, but I think there is still a chance,” said Moradel, who left Honduras with her 5-year-old son because she couldn’t find work.
Under a policy known as metering, U.S. officials at many border bridges accept only a few asylum-seekers a day. The Associated Press found about 19,000 names on waiting lists in four border cities visited in late July.
Frustration with U.S. policies aimed at limiting asylum requests has sparked mass attempts to cross border entries before. However, Thursday’s camp-out on the Mexican side of the Matamoros bridge appeared to be more of a protest than an attempt to cross.
Nevertheless, U.S. officials closed gates on the U.S. side, apparently as a precautionary measure.
Cameron County, which operates the Gateway bridge, said it is “primarily used for local traffic, ‘maquiladora’ (assembly-for-export factory) employees, tourists and pedestrian traffic.”
It said the bridge handles about 80% of the Brownsville-Matamoros pedestrian traffic.
The blockage caused long lines to form at the other international bridges leading out of Matamoros.
The CBP statement said migrants who had been returned to Mexico to wait for hearings on their asylum cases (a policy known as MPP, or Migrant Protection Protocol) but who could not cross due to the closure would be given new dates. About 11,000 migrants have been sent back to border cities in the state of Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located.
Orlando Valerio, a 53-year-old Nicaraguan migrant said he was one of those who missed their asylum hearing appointments because of the protest.
“I understand them, I am one of them,” Valerio said. “But they can’t block things this way.”
Later Thursday, Matamoros Mayor Mario Alberto Lopez walked onto the bridge to talk to the migrants and try to convince them to re-open the span.
The migrants told the mayor they were living in dirty conditions in Matamoros with little shelter or access to toilets.
The mayor promised to send cleaning crews and set up washing facilities. But he pointed out that the blockade had caused inconveniences for Matamoros residents who need to cross for work, shopping or other reasons.
Hundreds of migrants are camped out for months in tents near the bridge and along the banks of the Rio Bravo, or Rio Grande.