MATAMOROS, Mexico — Before Santiago was confined to a one-room apartment here on the Mexican border with his dad, he was surrounded by a big family. Now, nearly every night, the 4-year-old wakes up dreaming of them. “My family, my family,” he cries.
After 17 months waiting in this violent border town due to U.S. immigration policies, Santiago has become needy and aggressive, said his father, David Villegas. He gets upset if Villegas strays too far. Sometimes he refuses to take the video calls from his mother, who is waiting for them in North Carolina, demanding to know why she doesn’t just visit.
“I imagine it’s something psychological, because he can’t let me out of his sight. He needs to be constantly touching me,” Villegas said. “I am an adult, and I have suffered psychologically, but I deal with it, you know? But he’s just a kid that doesn’t know how to control his feelings and emotions.
“He asks, ‘why doesn’t mom come visit us?’ He doesn’t understand.”
Santiago is among thousands of children and adults stuck in Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as MPP, one of former President Donald Trump’s hallmark anti-immigration policies. It requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico while their case is processed in the United States. In theory, that was supposed to take a year at most. In practice, it’s dragging on closer to two.
Immediately after taking office, President Joe Biden said that no more people would be put into the MPP program. He’s created a task force aimed at reuniting 545 children separated from their parents at the border, and plans to raise the cap on the number of refugees allowed into the U.S. But he has not indicated what he will do with the 28,000 asylum seekers in Mexico who still have pending immigration hearings under the policy.
The uncertainty has created a mental health crisis that could reverberate long after the policy expires. Children are channeling their depression by acting out. They are more impulsive, quicker to fight, and faster to break into tears, said César José Barrios Pichardo, a psychologist with Doctors without Borders who has spent two years giving therapy sessions to asylum seekers in Matamoros.
Adults stuck in Mexico under the policy are also suffering: They’re anxiety-ridden, unable to sleep and increasingly frustrated. They have watched as fellow migrants who illegally entered the U.S. were rewarded with a path to citizenship under a proposal by President Biden. Instead, they followed the rules and patiently waited for their immigration hearings, only to be told to stay put.
“A new pandemic has arrived, and it’s called despair,” said Joel Fernández Cabrera, an asylum seeker from Cuba who has been waiting for more than a year for his immigration hearing. “There is total depression here. Joe Biden promised to help and he hasn’t done anything.”
“At the beginning we saw a lot more acute stress,” said Barrios, the psychologist. “Now, the depression is almost structural. Infinite waiting, constant changes, the lack of a stable process.”
Villegas and Santiago fled Venezuela in September 2019. Villegas’ wife had fled six months earlier for the U.S, after the family was attacked by pro-government thugs because she helped organize protests against President Nicolás Maduro. She reached the U.S. in April and moved to North Carolina. The plan was for Villegas and Santiago to meet her there.
But when Villegas and Santiago reached the U.S. border, Migrant Protection Protocols was in full swing. The father and son were sent to Matamoros to wait for a court hearing.
Villegas was disillusioned but still hopeful. He found a job as a mechanic and sent Santiago to daycare. They lived in a one-bedroom apartment with its own kitchen. Santiago was generally in good spirits, and devoted to his enormous collection of Hot Wheels. It wasn’t great, but they were managing.
Then the pandemic arrived. Villegas lost his job. Daycare was shut down. The immigration hearings were delayed indefinitely. Their apartment was too expensive so they moved, and then moved again, finally ending up in a one-room home in an apartment complex full of other asylum seekers stranded under the policy.
Villegas has long since run out of money and his wife sends cash for rent and food every month. Physically, they are doing okay. But emotionally both Santiago and Villegas are fraying. Villegas said Santiago has become aggressive, something he wasn’t before.
“He has more reasoning. He has a very good memory, and he was very loved by his family when they were together,” Villegas said. “So he is wondering, ‘Why can’t I be with my family? Why are you keeping me from my family?’”
As Villegas says this, he takes off his eyeglasses and rubs his face. Taking care of Santiago is the only thing that’s keeping him going, he said, and even that isn’t always enough. “Sometimes the depression is very, very hard. Depression is as dangerous as any disease.”
Across town, a sprawling tent encampment of migrants along the Rio Grande River looks like a mini-city. The conditions at the camp are better than they were a year ago; a make-shift drainage system has been created so the camp doesn’t flood when it rains, improvised classrooms dot the camp, and there’s even a pizzeria.
But the psychological toll of indefinite waiting is enormous. These issues are so prevalent that Doctors Without Borders is offering therapy sessions to people living in the encampment. Of the roughly 1,000 migrants living there, some 25 percent are children.
The therapy sessions can hardly pierce the migrants’ deep-seeded anxieties, as the camp’s residents are still living through their nightmare. One woman enters the tent that Doctors Without Borders has created as a makeshift therapy office.
Someone has tried to enter her tent twice in 10 days, the last time at 3 a.m, she said. Barrios is one of the only people she has told, she said, because talking about what happened could bring her more problems.
Barrios suggests she put a little lock on the zipper. “Even though it’s just a lock, that helps give a sense that you control the security of the place you are living.”
But she doesn’t have access to a lock. Perhaps a little rope would have the same effect, she replied hopefully.
“At least the intruders would make more noise,” she said, her hands shaking all the while.