About two dozen makeshift tents were torched and destroyed this week at a migrant camp across the Texas border, witnesses said Friday, a sign of the extreme risk of being stuck in Mexico as the Biden administration increasingly tightens this country as a host leaves people fleeing poverty and violence.
The fires were set Wednesday and Thursday at the sprawling camp of about 2,000 people, most of them from Venezuela, Haiti and Mexico, in Matamoros, a town near Brownsville, Texas. An advocate for migrants said they were doused in petrol.
“People fled when their tents were burned,” said Gladys Cañas, leader of the Ayudandoles A Triunfar group. “What they’re saying as part of their testimony is that they were told to go from there.”
There were no reports of deaths or significant injuries. But about 25 rudimentary shelters made of plastic, tarpaulin, branches and other materials were set alight in a sparsely populated part of the camp. Many who lived there also apparently lost clothing, documents and other modest belongings that may have been left inside.
Margarita, a Mexican woman staying at the camp, said Friday she saw migrants from Venezuela screaming during the previous day’s fire.
“They had their kids with them and a few other things they could get,” Margarita said. She spoke on condition that her last name not be released for fears for her safety.
Gangs recently threatened migrants who illegally waded across the river border as well as their leaders, Margarita said, but crossings have continued.
Criminal groups often prey on migrants in the area, demanding money in exchange for permission to cross their territory.
But Juan José Rodríguez, director of the Tamaulipas Institute for Migrants, a state agency coordinating with the Mexican federal government, said he had no information that a gang was responsible for the fires.
Rodríguez attributed them to a group of migrants and said about 10 already abandoned tents were burned. He added that they appear to have started the fires to express their frustration at a US government mobile app that is assigning turns to people to show up at the border and seek asylum.
Migrants have applied for 740 slots made available daily on the trouble-plagued app CBPOne, which allows them to legally enter the US at an official border crossing.
There are far more migrants than available places, fueling tensions in the Mexican border towns that house them, often in shelters and camps like the one in Matamoros. Last year, hundreds of migrants blocked a major pedestrian crossing between Tijuana and San Diego until authorities ended the protest.
In Matamoros, about 200 migrants gathered on the south side of an international bridge on Wednesday night, halting all traffic bound for the United States, U.S. Customs and Border Protection reported. Vehicles could resume crossing after about two hours and pedestrians were allowed to cross after about four hours.
CBP made no mention of fires at the Mexico camp in its bridge closure statement.
The tent fires in Matamoros follow a March 27 fire that killed 40 men at a Mexican immigration detention center in Ciudad Juárez. The fire was allegedly set by a detained migrant to protest conditions at the facility in the city across the street from El Paso, Texas.
The US government is increasingly turning to Mexico as it prepares to end pandemic-era asylum restrictions known as the Title 42 Agency on May 11. Mexico has recently started accepting people from Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela who cross the border irregularly and are turned back by the US
The Biden administration is also finalizing a policy that would deny asylum to people who travel through another country, such as Mexico, to reach US soil.
Associated Press writer Alfredo Peña in Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, contributed to this report.