2021-10-05 11:00:23 After Pastor Evicts Nearly 200 Migrants, His Brother Welcomes Them All

After Pastor Evicts Nearly 200 Migrants, His Brother Welcomes Them All

MEXICO CITY, MATAMOROS — As migrants poured into the Mexican border city of Matamoros this summer, a local pastor grew impatient.

Vctor Barrientos, the pastor, had already invited dozens of asylum seekers to live in his church, believing it was his religious obligation as an evangelical Christian. But, all of a sudden, it appeared to him that there were too many people. His guests were messy, he said, and “out of control” — and then, just as the pandemic’s third wave arrived, they became infected with the coronavirus.

So, on a late June day, the pastor evicted nearly 200 people. He allowed a few families to stay.

“I receive no assistance from the state or federal governments,” the pastor stated. “This is just a church; it is not a shelter.”

With nowhere else to go, the migrants crossed the street and sought refuge with the pastor’s estranged brother Joel, a technician for an internet provider. He crammed as many people into his one-bedroom apartment as he could.

He and his wife relocated the majority of their belongings to their bedroom to make more room, and they now sleep on the floor. He allowed migrants who couldn’t fit inside to pitch tents on the roof.

“I don’t know what happened to him,” Joel Barrientos said, squinting at his brother’s nearby church.

Matamoros was once just a brief stopover for migrants on their way north, known for its violent terrain that should be avoided at all costs. However, after former President Donald J. Trump ordered people to remain in Mexico while applying for refugee status, the city became a place where migrants waited out their fate for the long haul.

A migrant encampment in Matamoros, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas, closed after President Biden began allowing asylum seekers to cross the border. But as more people arrived, they were met with a closed door at an overburdened border.

According to the best estimates, hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants remain in the city, with little assistance from Mexican authorities.

Instead, alongside a jumble of nonprofits providing humanitarian aid, Matamoros residents — like people in towns across Mexico — have frequently been the ones helping, allowing migrants to stay on porches or lawns, converting churches into makeshift refugee camps, and, in at least one case, establishing a shelter in an abandoned home.

As the wait for migrants grows longer, the generosity of some in this town, which was once plentiful, is wearing thin.

The 50-year-old pastor, Victor Barrientos, said he first welcomed migrants into his church in 2014, when a large number of Central American children began arriving at the border. “We bought gifts for the kids” at Christmas, he explained.

A few years later, as large migrant caravans made their way north, he discovered entire families sleeping outside the Brownsville bridge. The number of people who stayed inside his church quickly grew into the triple digits.

“To be honest, he treated me beautifully,” said Iris Romero Acosta, a Honduran migrant who met the pastor while living on the streets of Matamoros in 2019. “He brought us food and housed us.”

Ms. Romero, 51, moved in with her daughter and two grandchildren to the church. She described the pastor as a cheerful figure who invited a Mariachi band to perform on Mother’s Day and bought cake to celebrate birthdays.

“He looked after us well,” she said. “He was genuinely concerned.”

The pastor left the church in the care of his brother Joel Barrientos, 49, while he traveled outside of Matamoros and then ran for mayor this year. As more people began to pour into Matamoros, the brother and his wife, Gabriela Violante, allowed the population to exceed 200.

The lines for the restroom became so long that women began lining up just to reserve a spot. The floors were littered with families sleeping next to each other. Rashes, colds, and then the coronavirus struck.

When the pastor returned to the church on a Sunday in April, he was shocked by what he discovered. The refrigerators were “full of bugs,” he recalled, and “no one was wearing masks.”

He forced everyone to take a coronavirus test, and when the positive results started pouring in, the pastor had had enough. He’d allowed a small group to stay, but everyone else had to leave.

“I can’t make everyone’s life better,” he admitted.

Ms. Romero, one of those who left, admitted that the place had become “filthy,” with “pampers strewn about.”

Still, she struggles to reconcile the image of the same man who took her in off the streets with the one who threw her out on the street.

Ms. Romero described him as “unrecognizable.” “My pastor’s heart softened.”

The brother’s house is now crammed with mats where people sleep side by side. In his modest entryway, an extra bathroom was constructed. Something is always cooking on the stove.

So many people set up tents on the roof that “the ceiling started to fall,” Joel Barrientos recalled, laughing. To support the weight, he had a column built in the middle of his living room.

When asked why he has taken in so many people, he cited his faith. “We appreciate the Lord’s work,” he said. He claimed that his brother “changed” at some point and now “doesn’t love migrants.”

Ms. Violante, his wife, is more pointed. “He can talk about the Bible,” she said of her brother-in-law, “but he doesn’t live it.”

Their neighbors have been wary of the influx of migrants on their doorsteps. When it rains, some people shelter their families under their garage roofs.

Mario Alberto Palacios, a local shopkeeper, began charging families $12 per week to set up tents outside his convenience store. Every time someone uses the restroom, Mr. Palacios demands a 50 cent fee.

Mr. Palacios defended the fees by saying, “I’m not charging them for electricity or water.”

On a recent Sunday, some of the migrant families living with the brother took a break from their afternoon routines to listen to the sound of live Christian rock music cut through the sweltering air.

The crowd was being warmed up inside the pastor’s church by a band whose lead singer would return the next day to play inside the brother’s house for his own service, in which various friends would take turns leading prayers.

The families outside sat motionless as they listened to the muffled chorus; they knew not to go beyond a post just up ahead, which marked the beginning of the pastor’s land.

As a song about God’s love filtered through the church walls, a small girl yelled, “Mommy!” “I recognize this one!”

During his sermon on the importance of family, the pastor briefly addressed the issue of migrants. Migrants, he told his flock, don’t always act appropriately.

“But even if migrants misbehave, God protects them,” he said, his voice rising to a near-scream.

“God bless our migrant brothers,” the pastor said, motioning toward the open door, where dozens of families had gathered outside in tents, but not on his property. “Bless them, bless them, bless them.”

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After Pastor Evicts Nearly 200 Migrants, His Brother Welcomes Them All