In February 2020, Washington Post reporter Arelis R. Hernández walked across the bridge from Brownsville, Tex., to Matamoros, Mexico, two sister cities along the international border with the glistening green Rio Grande snaking between them.
Sliding a few quarters into the turnstile, Arelis walked past Mexican security officials, down the main thoroughfare, through the town plaza and up a levee, where a breathtaking sight unfolded before her …
Hundreds of tents stretched along the river: a makeshift migrant camp full of thousands of asylum seekers from all over Latin America forced by the Trump administration to wait in Mexico while they pleaded their cases.
Smoke rose from earthen stoves and the smell of mesquite filled the air. Children kicked up clouds of dirt as soccer balls moved at their feet. Teenagers clustered together to charge and stare into their phones. Entire families swam, bathed and washed clothes in the river. But these mundane sights masked the cruel daily struggle for survival.
Danger lurked everywhere. Eyes watched at all times. Cartels dominate northern Mexico, and the migrants were vulnerable. Robberies, rapes and assaults were commonplace.
There in the camp, Arelis met a woman named Nancy and her two teenage children.
And Nancy had a chilling story to tell about how she wound up there …
… and why she feared she would never get out.
“We left what we had built behind”
Arelis meets Nancy in the Matamoros migrant camp, and Nancy begins to share her story.
Nancy is seen in early 2021 inside the camp. The Washington Post agreed to not use her full name out of concern for her safety. Nancy’s son, David, hauls a water jug that is part of the regular deliveries made to the camp with help from aid groups and Mexican immigration officials. A cross is installed in August 2020 for a Guatemalan migrant who drowned in the Rio Grande. (Photos courtesy of Nancy)
After her family is the victim of a horrible crime, Nancy and her children flee El Salvador. Winding their way north by bus and on foot, they head for the United States.
But before they reach their destination, they’re intercepted — not by Border Patrol, but by the cartels.
Having escaped the cartels and made it to the United States, Nancy and her children are sent back across the border to wait out their court date in Mexico. Exposed to the elements and dependent on aid workers for basic necessities, they navigate the grueling realities of life in the camp.
When the pandemic shuts down the border, the Trump administration suspends the asylum process indefinitely.
Stress and anxiety are constant companions. Afraid of who might be listening, Nancy holds back her full story. Birthdays and Christmases tick past — bitter reminders of the time spent in limbo.
Nancy wonders, how long will she be stuck here?
“The last time I cross that bridge”
After President Biden comes into office promising a new era of immigration policy, Arelis returns to the border to try to make sense of the resulting changes.
But what Arelis sees leaves her shaken — and gives her new insights into Nancy’s own journey.
A woman washes her hair while another does laundry at the migrant camp on Feb. 10. Children look through a hole in the fence of the international bridge while waiting to cross into the United States near Matamoros in February. Nancy is seen at the migrant camp in February. (Photos by Sergio Flores for The Washington Post)
Meanwhile, Nancy grows more desperate.
Just as she reaches a breaking point, she receives word that it may finally be her turn.
After she makes it to U.S. soil, Nancy reveals to Arelis the full scope of her suffering — and what prompted her to leave home.
Nancy and her children are reunited with family in Los Angeles, but their celebration is overshadowed by uncertainty about their prospects for staying in the United States.