Children of migrants, trapped in Mexico by the U.S. government’s so-called Migrant Protection Protocols, are leaving their parents and presenting themselves at the border alone. “Se están tirando,” people say about these children — Spanish for “they’re throwing themselves,” or “they’re launching,” and the phrase is newly being used to describe young immigrants who’ve begun leaving a refugee camp in Mexico with no adult beside them, in order to make it into the U.S. They do not know if they will ever see their parents again.

Beginning in July 2017, according to data just released by the American Civil Liberties Union, immigration authorities formally separated more than 5,000 children at the southern border from their mothers and fathers. The children who have separated themselves are as yet uncounted.

A teenager named Yolani is one of those who crossed alone. Amid a teeming, jury-rigged camp in Matamoros, the Mexican city just across from Brownsville, Texas, 46-year-old Danilo Ruiz was picking his way through the warren of tents and people when a fellow asylum-seeker gave him the news: His daughter had just left Mexico. Without her father’s consent, Yolani had walked northward by herself, into the United States. (The names of migrants in this story have been changed to protect them from retaliation by the U.S. government.)

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Danilo Ruiz shows a cellphone photo of his 17-year-old daughter, Yolani, in Matamoros.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Ruiz felt bereft but not surprised. Yolani had just turned 17 when she made her solo crossing over the bridge. And because she is not yet 18, she is exempt from the Migrant Protection Protocols, the Trump administration program that turns asylum-seekers back at the southern border and orders them to remain in Mexico while awaiting court hearings to decide their claims. MPP is widely seen as an attempt to make the asylum process so onerous that migrants will abandon their cases before they are fully developed. Amnesty International last week called MPP “inhumane,” “cruel,” and “nothing short of an international disgrace.”

Currently more than 50,000 Central Americans have been enrolled in MPP. The program encompasses all non-Mexican asylum claimants from Spanish-speaking countries. As of September 1, a third were minors, sent back to Mexico with their parents. In Matamoros, dozens of confused-looking families parade into the camp every day, after having been processed by American immigration officials in South Texas. U.S. immigration lawyers are sometimes able to get pregnant women, people with serious disabilities and illnesses, and sexual minorities out of the program. But there is no guarantee. Exemptions are decided case by case.

Under longstanding law and policy, however, migrants under 18 who present themselves at the border without their biological parents must be admitted into the U.S. Most are sent to relatives already living in this country. Or they go to youth shelters or foster care here.

Life for children in these arrangements generally is far superior to existence in Mexico at the border — particularly in Matamoros, where an estimated 1,400 to 2,000 asylum-seekers are currently living almost on top of each other, in a pop-up village of hundreds of flimsy tents anchored in dirt and, sometimes, human waste. The encampment is hot and sweaty when it’s sunny, wet and shivering when it rains. It is short on running water and toilets and lacks public schooling for the hundreds of children who live there.

Asylum seekers wait in line to get a meal provided by Team Brownsville on Oct. 22, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico. Most of the asylum seekers have been sent back under the Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP, also referred to as “Remain in Mexico” program. Some are asylum seekers from Mexico that are sent back to wait for their turn to seek asylum in the U.S. Mexican authorities estimate that more than 1,000 are living in the encampment.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Asylum-seekers wait in line for a meal provided by Team Brownsville, a U.S. humanitarian aid group whose volunteers offer food to refugees in Matamoros.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

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Left/Top: A father and son who are seeking asylum in the U.S. sleep in a hammock in the encampment in Matamoros. Right/Bottom: Children and their families look through books that are brought to the encampment by volunteers, reading them at the table while they're available.Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Not all of the camp residents are in MPP. Some, including Indigenous people who wear traditional dress and barely speak Spanish, are natives of central and southern Mexican states wracked with increasing cartel violence. Although they claim persecution in Mexico, they must nevertheless wait for weeks for permission to enter the U.S.

Their presence further crowds the camp and erodes conditions.

On October 10, in a protest against MPP, scores of migrants briefly sat down on the international bridge, blocking traffic to and from the United States. “We want to study!” several children in the group chanted in Spanish. But they will not get public schooling as long as they remain in the camp.

Enrique Maciel, regional delegate for the state-run Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, directs migrant affairs near the bridge. He said that the Mexican government is not obligated to provide classes to migrant children who aren’t in shelters.

Subsequent to the bridge protest, the city of Matamoros is pressuring the migrants to move out of their camp and into a proposed giant shelter several blocks away. Few want to leave the bridge area, however. “The authorities have told us parents nothing about schooling there,” one parent said. “And I think putting us somewhere else could be a trap. We could get kidnapped there. Here at the camp, I could grab my family and run toward the bridge, where the military and the reporters and the American authorities know what’s going on. Over there no one would protect us.”

The Gateway International Bridge as seen on Oct. 21, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico. Many of the asylum seekers that live in the nearby encampment shower and wash their clothes in the Rio Grande.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Many of the asylum-seekers who live in the encampment bathe and wash their clothes and swim in the Rio Grande, under the Gateway International Bridge.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

I recently spent three days in the Matamoros camp and observed unfailing kindness from the inhabitants toward one another, despite shocking crowding and deprivation. Women cooked collectively in a field, on wood fires they built after gather kindling from dead trees near the Rio Grande River. Christians prayed and sang together. People sat on the ground playing Crazy Sevens with decks of Spanish cards whose “diamonds” suit depicts gold coins and “spades” are medieval swords. Amid this graciousness, walking through the warrens of tents and hanging laundry was difficult without losing one’s way and stumbling in mud. People had to queue endlessly for food and potable water, to wash clothes, and to pour plastic jugs of clean water on themselves to wash their bodies.

The lines were intolerable to many, and rather than wait, some went to the river to do laundry, bathe, and — because of the heat and boredom — to swim. They swam near the same spot, full of deadly eddies and whirlpools, where a young man and his toddler daughter drowned in June.

“There’s nothing else to do,” one teenage boy said.

Miguel, 44, washes clothes with his daughter Julissa, 15,  in an encampment where they live near the Gateway International Bridge on Oct. 22, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico. They have been living in the encampment for two months after they were sent back under the Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP, also referred to as “Remain in Mexico” program.
Asylum-seeking children play in an encampment where they live near the Gateway International Bridge on Oct. 22, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Left/Top: Miguel, left, washes clothes with his daughter Julissa, 15, in the encampment, where they have been living for the last two months — since they were sent to Mexico under MPP. Right/Bottom: Children play at the Matamoros encampment.Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

A woman lying on a towel on the riverbank, reading a Bible, said she could understand why the kids would be tempted to swim, though she never would. “I was sitting here several weeks ago,” she said, “and a corpse floated by. At first I thought it was a garbage bag. It smelled terrible. They fished it out, and it was missing the head, arms, and legs.”

When Danilo Ruiz and his daughter crossed into the U.S. in early August and requested asylum, Ruiz told The Intercept, immigration officials said they were being sent to Matamoros, to a shelter. But there was no shelter, Ruiz said. They ended up sleeping on the ground by the bridge, with one blanket between them. They lived like that for a month before a church group gave them a tent — without mattresses or pillows.

“Dad, get me out of here! I can’t sleep!” Ruiz remembered Yolani begging. But even as she said this, she already knew she had an exit strategy. She knew because other children were crafting an “unaccompanied minor” option.

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Carlitos, 14, and his mother in a tent at the encampment.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Word in the camp was that two siblings, ages 5 and 8, had walked into the U.S. back in the summer and told officials that they had “lost their mother” (in fact, she was still in the camp). By October, the tents were abuzz with talk about such crossings — and with conversation among children themselves about whether they should make the trip, with or without parental blessing.

Yolani decided after her friends Erika and Jairo crossed. Both were also 17. Erika had come to the border with her father. Jairo arrived with his mother. Both had told their parents they intended to leave, even without permission. Erika’s father, Jose Angel, recalled that Erika had gotten a job in Matamoros at a store but was earning only $5.50 a day, working from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. She had to work seven days a week, and when she asked for a day off, the boss yelled at her for being a migrant. She was desperate for a future. She wanted to attend school in the U.S.

“Dad, I’m going,” she told her father in mid-October. She asked him for a 5-peso coin to drop into the turnstile on the bridge. Jose Angel refused.

“Don’t worry,” Erika told him. “It’s going to be OK.”

“Well, you’re a minor, but you will be accompanied by God,” Jose Angel said. “She crossed at 12:30. By 2 p.m. my family in the U.S. had called and said they’d heard from Immigration.”

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Erika’s father, Jose Angel, at the Matamoros encampment.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Jairo went to a children’s shelter. Days later, I was with his mother when her phone rang with a call from a social worker. She said Jairo was doing well and then let him talk to his mother. She feigned cheeriness and said she was happy for Jairo. After hanging up, she was tearful.

A couple of days after Erika’s and Jairo’s departure, two more children followed — a 15-year-old boy, Olvin, and his 11-year-old sister, Nancy. Their father, Elmer, had a job in construction in the countryside outside of Matamoros. He left the tent camp to work, and the boss said the employees wouldn’t be brought back to Matamoros for three days. Elmer paid “a girl,” as he put it, to watch the kids. When he returned to the camp, Olvin and Nancy had taken off. Days later, their father was still in shock but resigned. The children ended up in a foster home in the Midwest.

The parents whose children have crossed on their own worry that they may get in trouble when they go to their MPP court hearings without their sons and daughters who registered with them when they entered the program.

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Left/top: Two Honduran teenagers who met at the encampment hug goodbye before one returns to his country on Oct. 22, 2019. Right/bottom: Asylum-seekers wait for a bus to depart to Tapachula, Chiapas.Photos: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Asylum seekers that were sent back under the Migrant Protection Protocols, MPP, also referred to as “Remain in Mexico” program, wait to board a bus that will take them to Tapachula, Chiapas, border with Guatemala on Oct. 22, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico.Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Asylum-seekers on a bus to Tapachula, Chiapas. Some will come back for their MPP court hearings, but others will either stay in Mexico or return to their home countries.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Many children now crossing as self-described unaccompanied minors are telling the truth: Their parents really have given up their own asylum claims, told their sons and daughters to cross on their own, and then the mothers and fathers have caught buses back to the Mexican border with Guatemala. From there, many intend to return to Central America. But other parents remain in the Matamoros camp. They worry they will be blamed for their family separations, and that the adults’ asylum claims will be discounted.

“I’m afraid to even be in touch with her now,” said Jose Angel, the father of Erika. “I feel sad every day without her. I feel lonely. But it was much more dangerous for her here than for either of us over there. May God forgive me.”

Not long after the departures of Erika, Jairo, Olvin, Nancy, and Yolani, a slender, quiet father named Gerson walked through the camp asking people if they would like to engage in a three-day religious fast. In addition to not eating, participants would pray continuously for God to alleviate their suffering under MPP. Gerson’s daughter Nery was planning on crossing the bridge alone. “I’m afraid to be here,” she said. “I saw a woman and a child kidnapped.” Gerson said he felt he must give the girl his blessing and encourage the blessing of the Lord.

Nery just turned 16 a few days ago. She is a big girl, but she still wears a childish, red-glitter ribbon in her hair. She was friends with Yolani. In addition, Yolani was friends with 15-year-old Aracely and her 13-year-old sidekick, Xiomara. Aracely and Xiomara wear matching donated pink T-shirts decorated with a stripped down graphic of a pig and the words “Data: The New Bacon.”

Nathaly, 9, who is seeking asylum with her mother, charges her tablet in an encampment where they live near the Gateway International Bridge on Oct. 22, 2019 in Matamoros, Mexico.
Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Nathaly, 9, who is seeking asylum with her mother, charges her tablet at the Matamoros encampment.

Photo: Verónica G. Cárdenas for The Intercept

Yolani’s 16-year-old cousin Tommy said he’s planning to cross on his own. And 14-year-old Carlitos was thinking about it as well and discussed it with his parents. He said they’ll all feel sad, of course, but in the U.S., he’ll be safe from the gangs — and one day support his family.

Aracely and Xiomara said they’re waiting for their parents’ court hearings in November. If the hearings don’t go well, the girls are set to cross the bridge together. “Nos vamos a tirar,” they said. We will throw ourselves, we’ll launch.