Ray Rodriguez is reading a book in Spanish to dozens of children who are gathered around him listening intently.
The kids are sitting on the floor and leaning on each other.
“Samuel fell to the floor,” Rodriguez reads from the book with a dramatic voice. “One of the branches from the trees entered through the window and grabbed him by one of his legs!”
The kids gasp and he continues reading.
This day’s class feels a little different for Rodriguez. He knows it could be one of the last times he teaches at the school.
He’ll find out soon if an immigration judge will grant him asylum in the U.S.
Rodriguez and his students have waited at the U.S.-Mexico border for months. They’re all asylum seekers forced to remain in Mexico as their immigration court cases unfold in the U.S. under the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols. Before MPP, migrants were able to wait in the U.S. for their hearings.
As of early January 2020, more than 56,000 asylum seekers have been sent back to Mexico to wait under MPP. That’s according to the Department of Homeland Security, but other organizations report even higher numbers.
Rodriguez is originally from Cuba. Since coming to and waiting in Mexico, he’s worked as a teacher for several months at the Sidewalk School, a pop-up school that is held three times a week for migrant children at a tent encampment in Matamoros made up of more than 2,500 asylum seekers.
Felicia Rangel-Samponaro founded the school, and first talked to Rodriguez about creating it.
“Ray was the first one, he said, ‘I will do it with you. I will be a teacher at your school,’’’ Rangel Samponaro said recalling that day. “Without Ray I don’t think the school would be where it is.”
Rodriguez was a university teacher back in Cuba. Almost nine months ago he made the decision to flee his home country with a friend.
“I never thought I’d be here (in Mexico) for this long,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez is part of the LGBTQ community and said he was targeted back home.
“Once you’re gay it’s presumed that you are not in agreement with whatever social bodies of the revolution,” Rodriguez said. “It happened little by little, but it happened with questioning by the police, detentions here and there and then you become subject to all this harassment by the police and other political organizations.”
Rodriguez said he had several incidents with the police that he felt put his life in danger.
Once, he was robbed while walking home. When he went to file a police report, he said the officers changed their attitudes once they realized he was gay.
“The police said I was wasting their time with my ‘gay issues,’ so they put me in detention for almost 36 hours for no reason,” Rodriguez said. “I complained, but I was threatened with being beat up, or be put where the rest of the inmates are so they could rape me.”
Rodriguez said he feared similar instances would continue if he remained in Cuba. He decided it was time to leave.
Before fleeing Cuba he said he remembers saying goodbye to his mother.
“She lives on the other side of the island,” Rodriguez said. “She came and we spent a few days together.”
Rodriguez has made use of his time in Matamoros by working at the Sidewalk School and is a translator with Global Response Management. He said he feels like he’s developed a purpose while being in Matamoros.
“There (Cuba), because of the conditions of the country, the government and all of that, you become used to not having a goal, or a future, or a dream,” Rodriguez said. “That’s part of what the government does, is just crushing all of your dreams and then you’re just like zombie just trying to get by day by day.”
Earlier this month Rodriguez had his final hearing and was surprised when he entered the courtroom.
“They took me to where it was going to happen and I was shocked that it was in this tiny room where there was just space for the lawyer, me and the court clerk,” Rodriguez said. “I had friends that were coming — and I knew then that that was not going to happen.”
The tent MPP courts in Brownsville previously barred members of the public and journalists from observing immigration court hearings. They were made public prior to Rodriguez’s hearing, but private security at the facility still didn’t allow Rangel Samonaro to attend.
“I don’t know why Brownsville tent court is so different, but they don’t abide by the U.S. laws for immigration court,” Rangel Samponaro said. “They gave us the option of staying and listening to other peoples’ hearings, or just leaving.”
At the end of Rodriguez’s hearing his judge said he’d have to wait a week and attend another hearing before his asylum claim would be decided.
“I cried as soon as they said another date,” Rodriguez said. “Hopefully they say yes and are able to see what happened with me, but if not, I don’t think I could have done any better.”
Rodriguez’s next hearing was scheduled on Jan. 15, but his immigration judge called-in sick and his hearing was postponed to Jan. 22.
When the day finally arrived, Rodriguez’s friends and other court observers sat in the back of the room and waited as the judge called on several people before finally getting to him.
Rodriguez sat at the front of the room in front of a projector next to his attorney. In front of him was a screen where he could see and hear the immigration judge.
The judge began going through Rodriguez’s case — again— to decide whether or not it was likely he’d face persecution if he returned to Cuba.
She read out loud the details of his claims, like a warning and threat Rodriguez received from one of his bosses at the university he taught at in Cuba. He was told he must add pro Cuban Revolution ideology to his curriculum: if not he’d be fired, which he was. The judge also went over the incident he had with police detaining him and government officials not hiring him for jobs he applied for.
The re-litigation of his life, his claims and his reasons for fleeing lasted several hours. Rodriguez cried as he sat listening, knowing this was the moment he’d know if he was going to be granted asylum or not.
Rodriguez hugged his attorney as his friends and other court observers cried happily. They weren’t able to congratulate Rodriguez, but they smiled at him before being escorted out of the room.
Hours later however, the group learned Rodriguez would be held in immigration detention at the Port Isabel Detention Facility because the U.S. government attorneys still needed to decide if they would appeal the judge’s decision.
“After his hearing they made him wait in a tent until late at night when he was put inside a van and wasn’t told where the van was headed,” Rangel Samponaro said in a Facebook post. “He arrived at the detention center around 1 a.m., exhausted and tired he immediately went to sleep.”
........Ray was granted asylum today.....he was not released into the US this evening.....and he’s not in Matamoros. That’s all I want to say about it. For now. The fight for Ray Rod is not over. The U.S. government never makes it that easy. I’m going to sleep now. Good night. pic.twitter.com/SRfBTfS0eu
— The Sidewalk School (@SchoolSidewalk) January 23, 2020
Rodriguez was eventually released from immigration detention days later, but the attorney’s still have not said if they will appeal the judge’s decision.
Still — even after continuous hearings and unexpected detainment — Rodriguez is lucky. Receiving asylum, or other forms of protection, is rare for a variety of reasons. People give up on their cases and go back to their home countries. They often don’t have lawyers to represent them in court, according to advocates and immigration attorneys.
Rodriguez is staying with Rangel Samponaro and has plans on moving to D.C., where he wants to become an advocate to speak out against the MPP policy.