How a personal Fourth of July challenge sparked a life-changing mission for Kelly Escobar

Andy Downing
Inside the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico

In a couple of weeks, Kelly Escobar will load her 2003 Ford F-150 pickup truck with supplies and make the 30-hour drive to Matamoros, Mexico, where she’ll again volunteer at a migrant camp outside of El Puente Nuevo. It will beEscobar’s first trip to the region since February, when the coronavirus pandemic started to make its presence felt stateside, cutting off travel. 

Escobar made her initial trek to Matamoros in August 2019  — a good-will trip resulting from an annual act of civil disobedience Escobar engages in to mark the Fourth of July. (In the past, she’s done things like protest in support of Black Lives Matter, embracing the patriotic holiday as an occasion to highlight inequality and remind people “that we’re not all equally free.”)

“And so over the weekend of the Fourth last year, I came up with the idea to get together donations and take them down to the people in Mexico who were [waiting to be granted asylum in the United States],” said Escobar, who co-founded Love Without Lines (Amor Sin Lineas) as an umbrella for the work. “And in the middle of gathering donations and fundraising, MPP, the Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, were enacted, leaving them stuck in Mexico with no hope of getting across [the border] until they completed their court cases.”

As a result, the makeshift encampment on the Rio Grande riverbed began growing quickly last fall, with more than 2,000 migrants now stationed near the foot of the Gateway International Bridge, waiting for their cases to be heard in U.S. courts. Many of the migrants live in cheap camping tents whose waterproofing has been decayed and rendered useless by the relentless sun. Escobar said there are tarps everywhere, but also signs of ingenuity, including stoves constructed from stones and mud and topped with metal grating.

Escobar’s mission also changed with U.S. policy enforcement, evolving from a planned one-time visit into an all-consuming passion, a shift she traced largely to the personal connections she made with the migrants during that first August visit.

“Our first night down there, we crossed over with an organization to feed the people dinner … and when they were done [feeding the migrants] they packed up and went to the bar,” Escobar said (the camp is supported by U.S. and Mexico aid organizations and volunteers). “And I told the leader [of the charity], ‘We’re going to stay here and talk with the people.’ And she said, ‘We come together, we leave together.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m a 40-year-old woman, I speak Spanish and this isn’t my first trip to Mexico. I’ll be OK.’”

Get news and entertainment delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our daily newsletter

Each night that first week, when the charity packed up and left, Escobar remained behind, talking, partaking in dance parties and making arts and crafts with the camp’s children. “Just trying to make a connection,” she said. She also listened as migrants recounted horrific stories of escape, such as the Guatemalan woman whom Escobar said worked as a security guard for a government official. The woman told Escobar how the official assaulted and raped her, killing another guard in the process, before forcing her to leave the country with her son. 

“I could go on all day about the stories and the tragedies,” said Escobar, who will leadZoom Beyond the Lines at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 4, an online discussion in which she’ll discuss previous efforts made by Love Without Lines, among other related topics. “When I first got to the camps, there were no mental health services, so I kind of became the camp counselor, where people would come to me with their stories, their traumas. And it was hard for me to listen, but these people didn’t have anybody else.”

Escobar said the experience has shifted something inside of her. While she said she’s always been a compassionate person, that compassion is now accompanied by a “righteous anger,” as she termed it, a fire that only grew in the months that COVID-19 necessarily kept her from the camp. In the interim, she kept in touch via text message, FaceTime and phone calls, her migrant connections keeping her up to date on camp conditions and happenings, including three women who were recently swept away by the currents while bathing in the Rio Grande, all of whom were thankfully rescued. 

“These people shouldn’t be stuck where they’re at. Nothing has changed. No new laws have been passed to keep these people away,” said Escobar, who pointed to a shift in enforcement under the current administration as driving the change in summoning some of that aforementioned righteous anger. “They’re taking the back door to keep these people out, and I know how amazing these people are, and I know how lucky we would be to have them. They deserve better than the U.S.”