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Worries Over Migrants' Mental Health


Aid workers say there's a growing mental health crisis on the border. Thousands of migrants are camped out in Mexican border towns, waiting for weeks and months for their chance to ask for asylum in the United States. Some are becoming despondent, living in squalid and dangerous conditions. Texas Public Radio's Reynaldo Leanos Jr. has this report, which contains details some of you may find upsetting.

REYNALDO LEANOS JR, BYLINE: Hundreds of tents are scattered around the international bridge that connects Brownsville, Texas, to Matamoros, Mexico, where more than 2,000 asylum-seekers are living. Kelly Escobar has been volunteering with the group that provide supplies and assistance to the migrants.

KELLY ESCOBAR: I've seen mental health declining rapidly, especially with people being denied asylum.

LEANOS: Escobar left her home in Ohio because she wanted to help the migrants.

ESCOBAR: At first, everybody was hopeful. They had dreams, hopes and - that there was a possibility of asylum. And you just see it in people's faces. You see the despair and the depression.

LEANOS: That despair was on display for the world to see earlier this month, when a Mexican asylum-seeker killed himself on an international bridge about 60 miles away. He had just been denied entry into the U.S., according to Mexican investigators. Escobar says she's heard from a lot of migrants who are struggling.

ESCOBAR: They'll call me at midnight, 2, 3 o'clock in the morning, and I'll stay on the phone with them for hours just trying to calm the situation down. And there's no psychological or - no therapists. There's nobody here that helps these people in that aspect.

LEANOS: U.S. officials say they are working with Mexico to improve services for the migrants, but aid groups say there are little to no mental health care for asylum-seekers up and down the border. In Matamoros, immigrant advocates are trying to get mental health experts to come to the encampment.

Ariana Sawyer with Human Rights Watch has visited the town and others like it.

ARIANA SAWYER: We're talking about people who've expressed to me that they're experiencing anxiety, depression, nightmares, night terrors, things like that. And especially, I think, for children, these are going to be long-lasting problems and traumas that they are going to have to deal with.

LEANOS: The Trump administration has made many changes to the asylum system, making it extremely difficult to get protection here. And while they wait for their day in U.S. immigration court, the migrants are forced to wait in Mexico. The administration says the new system is more efficient, but Sawyer says the administration had another goal.

SAWYER: This policy was designed to traumatize asylum-seekers further, to the point where they become willing to give up on their asylum claims, and it is doing just that.

LEANOS: Roberto Gonzalez fled violence in Honduras with his two boys. He says he's not giving up on his asylum claim just yet, but he did get so desperate that he sent his two sons across the border by themselves. Gonzalez knew that was the only way they'd be allowed in. The U.S. doesn't turn away unaccompanied children.

ROBERTO GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) They would tell me, Dad, no. Dad, no. They'd say, please don't. Don't let us go. Please, Dad, we love you. I'd tell them, it's going to be better for the both of you.

LEANOS: He says, at times, there was no food for his kids at the camp. He also says his boys had trouble sleeping and cried all the time. Gonzalez says he, too, has cried every night since he sent his children across the bridge.

GONZALEZ: (Through interpreter) I've gotten into tough mental headspaces where I've gotten thoughts about not wanting to live anymore because I can't be sent back to my country. I know what awaits me if I return, but I ask God to give me strength.

LEANOS: Gonzalez won't see his sons anytime soon. His next asylum hearing is next month.

For NPR News, I'm Reynaldo Leanos Jr. in Matamoros.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

(SOUNDBITE OF FELBM'S "MAKTENE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.