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Female-led engineering team works to improve migrant facilities in Reynosa

Female-led engineering team works to improve migrant facilities in Reynosa

HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) -- A woman-run engineering firm from the United States has been helping to build infrastructure to make life better for about 1,200 asylum-seekers currently living at two main shelters in the dangerous northern Mexican town of Reynosa.

Erin Hughes, executive director of the nonprofit Solidarity Engineering, says each shelter currently has over 600 migrants, most of whom live in hot, enclosed tents on the sprawling grounds.

They also are helping about 70 migrants living on the Rio Grande in a makeshift camp called Camp Rio.

“It's tough for most of these folks. It is incredibly hot right now and it's only gonna get hotter. And there's limited water. There's limited shade and shelter. Most of them are living in really hot tents with no fans, no air conditioning, no relief," Hughes told Border Report on Tuesday at the entrance to the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge.

She has been coming to South Texas since 2020 offering help from her nonprofit organization.

Erin Hughes

She and the two other female founders of Solidarity Engineering met in 2019 at the U.S.-Mexico border after learning of a then-sprawling migrant camp along the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico, about 55 miles east of Reynosa.

At one point that camp swelled to over 5,000 people and her organization helped to supply much-needed water and other infrastructure.

But U.S. immigration policy changes and the whims of the Mexican cartels are constantly changing the geographic dynamics of the border and the number of migrants in one border city will swell, while another ebbs.

"There's never been a time when the migrants have stopped showing up. And so we need to continue providing basic services for these people. Solidarity Engineering provides clean drinking water, sanitary and safe functional bathroom facilities. We build playgrounds. We teach STEM classes," Hughes said.

Thousands of migrants live in tents south of the border in Reynosa, Mexico, waiting for CBP One asylum appointments to legally cross and claim asylum in the United States. (Photo Courtesy Solidarity Engineering)

Right now more migrants are waiting in Reynosa, and Hughes said those at the camps are all trying to get asylum appointments via the CBP One app so they can legally enter U.S. ports of entry and make their asylum claims.

But with fewer than 1,500 asylum appointments given each day on the entire Southwest border, migrants often wait for weeks and sometimes months to get an appointment.

"Even with the asylum changes people are still coming to the border and getting stuck," she said.

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced asylum changes that would limit the number of migrants considered for asylum if they cross the border illegally and not without a CBP One appointment.

That has caused even more people to wait south of the border, she said.

That's why it's so important, she says, for her group to improve the living conditions so the migrants can withstand the wait.

Those who cross illegally and are sent back under the new executive order a could face a five-year bar from trying to re-enter the United States.

Hughes lives in Pennsylvania but makes several trips to the South Texas border and to Mexican border cities each year.

What she sees, she says, breaks her heart.

She says many migrants don't have money for cellphone minutes or even to purchase smart phones that are required to operate the CBP One app, which will allow them a chance to meet face to face with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer.

Her organization accepts donations and grants and tells Border Report "we've been doing this for several years and we can really stretch a dollar."

Anyone wanting to donate, can go to the Solidarity Engineering website.

They give hygiene kits and special bags with pre-natal vitamins and newborn clothes to expecting mothers. They give out toys and diapers to families, and they have even built a soccer field in Matamoros.

They offer weekly STEAM classes of science, technology, engineering, art and math, to the migrant children. Last week they built an exploding volcano, which drew in even the adults, she said.

Nevertheless she is mindful of the dangers of crossing the border and how the Mexican cartels control Reynosa and many other border towns in the state of Tamaulipas, to which the U.S. State Department has warned against traveling.

"Not only is Reynosa a dangerous city but the industry that we’re working in – asylum-seekers – are a money-maker for the cartels. So you really have to keep your head down and be smart about what you’re doing," Hughes said.

On Friday, the State Department issued a warning about a kidnapping on a bus in Reynosa.

Hughes is a new mom with a 9-month-old daughter and she says she has particular empathy for the pregnant women and families who are enduring in these hot and inhumane conditions south of the border.

Solidarity Engineering wants to build a park with playground for migrant children in Reynosa, Mexico. (Photo Courtesy Solidarity Engineering)

Her group currently is embarking on a new project to build a park, picnic and playground for not only the shelter migrants but for use by nearby residents of Reynosa.

As a new mom, she says she understands how important play is for children, and she says she intends to make that happen south of the border.

"It's really sad just seeing them play with broken toys and the gravel and so giving them a semblance of normalcy. Giving something just for the kids -- a playground and park -- that they can interact that they can have fun with each other. It's really a big component of keeping some normalcy in their lives," she said.

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at SSanchez@BorderReport.com.

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