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Mental Health Crisis Grows In Border Camps Filled With Hopeless, Depressed Migrants

Reynaldo Leanos Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Roberto Gonzalez shows a photo of his two boys inside the tent he's been living in in Matamoros, Mexico.

Hundreds of red, blue and orange tents are scattered around the Gateway International Bridge that connects Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico, where more than 2,000 asylum seekers live. Children with their families have endured heat, cold and inclement weather for months. Such conditions are grinding down migrants' mental health.

Kelly Escobar is with Love Without Lines and has volunteered at the tent encampment, where she provided supplies and assistance to the migrants.

“I’ve seen mental health declining rapidly, especially with people being denied asylum,” she said.

Aid workers are worried about a growing mental health crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border as thousands of migrants are camped out in Mexican border towns, waiting for weeks and months for their day in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy.

More than 57,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico under the policy.

Escobar said she left her home in Ohio because she wanted to help the migrants.

“At first everybody was hopeful. They had dreams, hopes, and [they] thought there was a possibility of asylum,” she explained. “You just see it in people’s faces. You see the despair, the depression."

That despair was on display for the world to see earlier this month when a Mexican asylum seeker killed himself on an international bridge about 60 miles away. He had just been denied entry into the U.S., according to Mexican investigators.

Escobar said she wasn’t surprised when she heard the news. She’s not a trained mental health expert but makes herself available to asylum seekers if they want to talk about what’s going on in their lives.

Credit Reynaldol Leanos Jr. | Texas Public Radio
Kelly Escobar helped at the tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, for months.

She remembered a Mexican man whose wife tried to end her life. They fled violence in southern Mexico, and their asylum claims in the U.S. were denied.

“She had been denied asylum, she was a Mexican national, denied asylum, came back here and she didn’t have anything else to live for,” Escobar said. “They had taken her land, her house, and there was nowhere for her to go. She felt life was hopeless -- there was nothing left.”

Escobar said she’s heard from a lot of migrants who are struggling.

“They’ll call me at midnight, two, three o’clock in the morning, and I’ll stay on the phone with them for hours just trying to calm the situation down,” she said. “There’s no ... therapist -- there’s nobody here that helps these people in that aspect.”

U.S. officials said they are working with Mexico to improve services for migrants, but aid groups said there is little to no mental health care for asylum seekers up and down the border.

In Matamoros, immigrant advocates are trying to get mental health experts to come to the encampment or offer sessions via teleconference.

Ariana Sawyer is with Human Rights Watch and has visited Matamoros and other towns like it on the border.

“We’re talking about people who have expressed to me that they are experiencing anxiety, depression, nightmares, night terrors -- things like that -- and I think especially for children these are going to be long lasting problems and trauma that they are going to have to deal with,” she said.

The Trump administration has made many changes to the asylum system, making it extremely difficult for migrants to gain protection in the U.S. The administration says the new system is more efficient.

Sawyer said the administration had another goal.

“This policy was designed to traumatize asylum seekers further to the point where they become willing to give up on their claims, and it’s doing just that,” Sawyer said.

Roberto Gonzalez fled violence in Honduras with his two boys and said he’s not giving up on his asylum claim just yet.

Credit Reynaldo Leanos Jr. | Texas Public Radio
When Roberto Gonzalez, a Honduran asylum seeker, decided to send his sons across the U.S.-Mexico border without him, they begged him not to.

But he did get so desperate that he sent his sons across the border by themselves. Gonzalez knew that was the only way they’d be allowed in. The U.S. doesn’t turn away unaccompanied children.

“They would tell me 'dad, no dad, no.' They’d say, 'please don’t don’t let us go,' ” Gonzalez recalled. “'Please dad, we love you.' I’d tell them, 'it’s going to be better for the both of you.'”

He said at times there was no food for his kids at the camp and that his boys had trouble sleeping and cried all the time.

Gonzalez said he too has cried every night since he sent his children across the bridge and that that was the most difficult thing he’s had to do.

“I’ve gotten into tough mental head spaces where I’ve gotten thoughts about not wanting to live anymore because I can’t be sent back to my country,” he said. “I know what awaits me if I return. But I ask God to give me strength.”

Gonzalez won’t see his sons anytime soon. His next asylum hearing is next month, and his sons are currently in the custody of the U.S. government.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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

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