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

MATAMOROS, Mexico — Over the summer, as migrants rushed into the Mexican border city of Matamoros, a local pastor lost his patience.

The pastor, Víctor Barrientos, had already invited dozens of asylum seekers to live in his church, believing that was his religious duty as an evangelical Christian. But suddenly, it seemed to him, there were too many people. His guests were messy, he said, and “out of control” — and then, just as the pandemic’s third wave hit, they started getting the coronavirus.

So one day in late June, the pastor kicked out nearly 200 people. He let a few families stay.

“I’m not receiving any help from the state or federal government,” the pastor said. “This is just a church, not a place to shelter people.”

With nowhere else to go, the migrants walked across the street and found shelter with the only person who would take them in — the pastor’s estranged brother Joel, who works as a technician for an internet provider. He packed as many people as he could into his one-bedroom home.

He and his wife moved most of their belongings to their bedroom to make space, and now sleep on the floor. He let migrants who couldn’t find room inside set up tents on the roof.

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

Joel Barrientos, center left, and his wife María Gabriela Violante, center right, with some of the migrants they host.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

Matamoros was long just a brief stopping point for migrants on their way north, known to be violent terrain best traversed as quickly as possible. But after former President Donald J. Trump forced people to stay in Mexico while they applied for refugee status, the city became a place where migrants waited out their fate for the long haul.

After President Biden began allowing asylum seekers to cross the border, a migrant encampment in Matamoros — just across from Brownsville, Tex. — closed. But more people came, and they were soon met with a shut door at an overwhelmed border.

The best estimates suggest that there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants still holed up in the city, and they receive little help from the Mexican authorities.

Instead, alongside a hodgepodge of nonprofits offering humanitarian assistance, the residents of Matamoros — like people in towns across Mexico — have often been the ones helping, letting migrants stay on porches or lawns, turning churches into makeshift refugee camps, and, in at least one case, starting a shelter in an abandoned home.

As the wait facing migrants stretches, the generosity of some in this town, once abundant, is wearing thin.

Víctor Barrientos, the 50-year-old pastor, said he first welcomed migrants into his church in 2014, when Central American children started showing up at the border en masse. At Christmas time, “we bought gifts for the kids,” he said.

Migrants at Joel Barrientos’s home enjoying the outdoor space.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

A few years later, as large migrant caravans made their way north, he found entire families sleeping outside the bridge leading to Brownsville. The numbers staying inside his church soon grew to triple digits.

“I’ll be honest, he treated me beautifully,” said Iris Romero Acosta, a Honduran migrant who met the pastor in 2019, when she was living on the streets in Matamoros. “He brought us food and took us in.”

Ms. Romero, 51, moved into the church with her daughter and two grandchildren. The pastor, she said, was a jolly presence, inviting a Mariachi band to play on Mother’s Day and buying cake to celebrate birthdays.

“He took good care of us,” she said. “He was really caring.”

As the pastor traveled outside of Matamoros and then made a run for mayor this year, he left the church in the care of his brother Joel Barrientos, 49. As more people started flowing into Matamoros, the brother and his wife, Gabriela Violante, let the ranks inside swell past 200.

The lines for the bathroom grew so long that women started getting in them just to reserve a spot. The floors were covered in families sleeping back to back. People got rashes, colds and then the coronavirus.

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

Victor Barrientos, center, with his wife, left, and some of the migrants he still lets stay in his church, in August.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

He made everyone take a coronavirus test, and after the positive results started rolling in, the pastor said enough. He’d let a small group stay, but everyone else needed to get out.

“I can’t solve everyone’s life for them,” he said.

Ms. Romero, who was among the people who left, acknowledged that the place had become “filthy” with “pampers strewn about.”

Still, she finds it hard to reconcile the image of the same man who took her in off the streets with the one who threw her to the curb.

“He became unrecognizable,” Ms. Romero said. “My pastor’s heart changed.”

The brother’s house is now packed with mats where people sleep shoulder to shoulder. An extra bathroom was built in his modest entryway. The stove seems to always be cooking something.

So many people put up tents on the roof that recently, “the ceiling started to fall,” Joel Barrientos said, giggling at the memory. He had a column built in the middle of his living room to support the weight.

Migrants’ tents on the roof of Joel’s house.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

When asked why he has taken in so many, he talked of his faith. “We love the Lord’s work,” he said. His brother, he said, “changed” at some point and now “doesn’t love migrants.”

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

Their neighbors have reacted cautiously to the overflow of migrants on their doorsteps. When it rains, some people let the families stay dry under their garage roofs.

A local shopkeeper, Mario Alberto Palacios, started charging families $12 a week to set up tents outside his convenience store. Mr. Palacios requires a 50 cent payment each time anyone uses the bathroom.

“I’m not charging them for electricity or water,” Mr. Palacios said, defending the fees.

Mario Alberto Palacios Andrade in his shop. He charges migrants to set up tents outside.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

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

Inside the pastor’s church, the crowd was being warmed up 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 still as they listened to the muffled chorus; they knew not to go beyond a post just up ahead, which marked the spot where the pastor’s land began.

“Mommy,” a small girl shouted, as a song about God’s love filtered through the church walls. “I know this one!”

Victor leading a service at his church.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

During his sermon about the value of family, the pastor turned his attention, briefly, to the question of migrants. Sometimes, he told his flock, migrants don’t act appropriately.

“But even if migrants behave badly, God protects the migrants,” he said, his voice rising to a near shout.

“God bless our migrant brothers,” the pastor said, gesturing toward the open door, where dozens of families were gathered outside in tents, but no longer on his land. “Bless them, bless them.”

A woman from Guerrero, Mexico, resting with her son in a tent on Joel’s roof.Credit…Daniele Volpe for The New York Times
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