MATAMOROS, Mexico – During the summer, as migrants rushed to the Mexican border town of Matamoros, a local pastor lost his temper.
The pastor, Víctor Barrientos, had already invited dozens of asylum seekers to live in his church, believing it to be his religious duty as an evangelical Christian. But suddenly, it seemed to him, there were too many people. His hosts were messy, he said, and “out of control” – then, just as the third wave of the pandemic hit, they started contracting the coronavirus.
So one day in late June the parish priest expelled almost 200 people. He let some families stay.
“I’m not getting any help from the state or the federal government,” the pastor said. “It’s just a church, not a place to host people.”
With nowhere to go, the migrants crossed the street and found refuge with the only person who would welcome them: the pastor’s brother, Joel, who works as a technician for an internet provider. He crammed as many people into his one-bedroom house as possible.
He and his wife have moved most of their belongings to their bedroom to make room and are now sleeping on the floor. He let migrants who couldn’t find a place inside pitch tents on the roof.
“I don’t know,” said Joel Barrientos, squinting at his brother’s nearby church, “what happened to him.”
Matamoros has long been a short stopping point for migrants en route north, known to be violent terrain that is best crossed as quickly as possible. But after former President Donald J. Trump forced people to stay in Mexico when they applied for refugee status, the city became a place where migrants awaited their long-term fate.
After President Biden began allowing asylum seekers to cross the border, a migrant camp in Matamoros, just across from Brownsville, Texas, was closed. But more people arrived and soon found themselves faced with a closed door on an overwhelmed border.
Best estimates suggest that there are several hundred, if not thousands, of migrants still holed up in the city and receiving little help from Mexican authorities.
Instead, alongside a hodgepodge of nonprofits offering humanitarian aid, the people of Matamoros – like the people of cities all over Mexico – have often been the ones who helped, allowing migrants to stand in arcades or lawns, transforming the he asked in makeshift refugee camps and, in at least one case, creating refuge in an abandoned house.
As the wait for migrants grows, the generosity of some in this once abundant city is dwindling.
Víctor Barrientos, the 50-year-old pastor, said he welcomed migrants to his church for the first time in 2014, when Central American children started showing up en masse at the border. At Christmas, “we bought gifts for the children,” she said.
A few years later, as large caravans of migrants headed north, he found entire families sleeping off the bridge to Brownsville. The numbers remaining within his church quickly grew to three digits.
“I’ll be honest, he treated me very well,” said Iris Romero Acosta, a Honduran migrant who met the pastor in 2019 while living on the street in Matamoros. “He brought us food and welcomed us. “
Ms. Romero, 51, moved to the church with her daughter and two grandchildren. The pastor, he said, was a cheerful presence, inviting a group of Mariachi to play on Mother’s Day and buying cakes to celebrate birthdays.
“He took care of us,” she said. “He was really thoughtful. “
As the pastor traveled out of Matamoros and then ran around town hall this year, he left the church in the care of his brother Joel Barrientos, 49. As more and more people began to flock to Matamoros, his brother and his wife, Gabriela Violante, left the internal ranks to surpass 200.
The lines for the bathroom became so long that women started coming in just to reserve a seat. The floors were covered with families sleeping back to back. People had rashes, colds and then the coronavirus.
When the pastor returned to church on a Sunday in April, he said he was shocked by what he found. The refrigerators were “full of bugs” and “no one wore masks,” he recalls.
He gave everyone a coronavirus test and after the positive results started coming in, the pastor said enough. He’d let a small group stay, but everyone needed to get out.
“I can’t fix everyone’s life for them,” he said.
Ms. Romero, who was among those who left, admitted that the place had become “dirty” with “sparse care”.
However, she struggles to reconcile the image of the same man who took her to the street with the one who threw her on the sidewalk.
“It has become unrecognizable,” said Ms. Romero. “My pastor’s heart has changed.
The brother’s house is now full of mats where people sleep side by side. An additional bathroom has been created in its modest entrance. The stove always seems to be cooking something.
So many people have pitched their tents on the roof that recently “the ceiling has started to fall,” said Joel Barrientos, laughing at the memory. He had a column built in the middle of his living room to support the weight.
When asked why he welcomed so many, he spoke of his faith. “We love the Lord’s work,” he said. His brother, he said, “changed” at some point and now “doesn’t like migrants.”
His wife, Mme Violante, is more acute. “He can talk about the Bible,” he says of his brother-in-law, “but he doesn’t put it into practice.
Their neighbors reacted cautiously to the influx of migrants on the doorstep. When it rains, some people leave their families dry under the roof of the garage.
A local merchant, Mario Alberto Palacios, has started charging families $ 12 a week to set up tents outside his convenience store. Mr. Palacios asks for a payment of 50 cents every time someone uses the bathroom.
“I don’t charge them for electricity or water,” Palacios said, defending the charges.
One recent Sunday, some of the migrant families living with their brother took a break from their afternoon routine to hear the sound of live Christian rock music pass through the stuffy air.
Inside the parish priest’s church, the crowd was warmed up by a group whose lead singer returned the next day to perform inside his brother’s house for his own service, where several friends took turns driving. prayers.
Families outside stood still, listening to the muffled choir; they knew not to pass a pole a little further on, which marked the point where the shepherd’s land began.
“Mom,” a little girl cried, as a song about God’s love filtered through the walls of the church. “I know this!”
In his sermon on the value of the family, the parish priest briefly addressed the issue of migrants. Sometimes, he told his flock, migrants don’t behave appropriately.
“But even if the migrants behave badly, God protect the migrants,” he said, his voice rising almost to a cry.
“God bless our migrant brothers,” said the pastor, pointing to the open door, where dozens of families were gathered outside in tents, but no longer on his land. “Bless them, bless them. “
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