Pastor Víctor Barrientos' church once housed 200 asylum seekers—until he decided they were too "out of control."
Evangelical pastor Víctor Barrientos lives in the Mexican border city of Matamoros, where he also operates his church. Over the summer, as migrants rushed to his town, he invited them to live in his church. However, his patience soon grew thin. He claimed the asylum seekers were "out of control," messy, and loud. Furthermore, as the pandemic's third wave hit, they eventually began contracting the deadly Coronavirus. In late June, Barrientos decided to evict the nearly 200 migrants he once welcomed. Although he let a few families stay, dozens became homeless overnight. When the pastor's estranged brother Joel, a technician for an internet provider, learned of their plight, he housed as many as he could into his one-bedroom home, The New York Times reports.
A Honduran migrant 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 that summer day. “He became unrecognizable,” she said. “My pastor’s heart changed.” https://t.co/2NrEq1H6oU— New York Times World (@nytimesworld) October 6, 2021
"I’m not receiving any help from the state or federal government," Barrientos stated. "This is just a church, not a place to shelter people." According to his brother, Joel is not sure what happened to him. He and his wife Gabriela Violante moved most of their belongings into their bedroom to make space for the migrants. The couple now sleeps on the floor. As for those who could not find space indoors, Joel helped them set up tents on the roof.
In Matamoros, MX there is a refugee camp in all but name. US gov, MX gov, NGOs—none is responsible for it. Most of its residents have court dates in the US—it’s waiting for those court dates that has them in Matamoros to begin with.— Dara Lind (@DLind) February 28, 2020
What happens when coronavirus hits?
The migrants, too, are unsure of what happened to Barrientos. Many of them shared that he treated them well. Iris Romero Acosta, a Honduran migrant who met the pastor in 2019 when she was living on the streets in Matamoros, revealed, "I’ll be honest, he treated me beautifully. He brought us food and took us in. He took good care of us. He was really caring." However, this was before he left the church under his brother's care while he made a run for mayor this year. Now, Acosta finds it difficult 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," she said. "My pastor’s heart changed."
The political tension over this camp is unique. The U.N. hesitates to declare the Matamoros encampment a refugee camp created by the U.S. government, its primary funder for refugee resettlement efforts. But visiting makes clear a refugee camp is what it is https://t.co/CRrJFbhUOq— Michelle Hackman (@MHackman) October 25, 2020
Perhaps the state of affairs in his church is what caused the 180-degree switch. When Barrientos returned in April, the church had swelled up with people. There were long lines to use the bathrooms and the floors were covered in families sleeping back to back. Due to this overpopulation, people started getting sick: rashes, colds, and COVID-19. He recalled that the fridges were “full of bugs” and “no one was wearing masks." So, he evicted a majority of the migrant families his church housed. The pastor affirmed, "I can’t solve everyone’s life for them."
At the Matamoros refugee camp in Mexico, hundreds of asylum seekers are waiting for court dates in the U.S. because of the "Remain in Mexico" program.— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) May 25, 2020
Cuban doctors, who are also seeking asylum, have become their caregivers. https://t.co/Fopz1YVQg5
These days, Joel's home is packed with the twice-displaced asylum seekers. Reportedly, so many people put up tents on the roof that recently “the ceiling started to fall," he said. To support the extra weight, he built a column in the middle of his living room. He also built an extra bathroom in his entryway. When asked about why he took in so many, Joel spoke about his faith. He explained, "We love the Lord’s work." His wife, on the other hand, was more pointed. "He can talk about the Bible," she said of the pastor, her brother-in-law. "But he doesn’t put it into practice."
Every Sunday, our Relief Team in Brownsville, Texas makes fried chicken with yellow rice, broccoli & carrots for dinner.🍗😋 It's become a beloved weekly tradition at the refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico. #ChefsForThePeople pic.twitter.com/uK5X661B3D— World Central Kitchen (@WCKitchen) February 24, 2020
The migrant crisis in Matamoros worsened after former United States President Donald Trump forced people to stay in Mexico while they applied for refugee status. Initially, the city was just a brief stopping point for asylum seekers. Presently, migrants stay in Matamoros for the long haul. When President Joe Biden entered office and began permitting asylum seekers to cross over to the US, a migrant encampment in Matamoros was closed down. However, more people arrived; they were met with a shut door at an overwhelmed border. Today, hundreds, if not thousands, await asylum—all of them holed up in the tiny city of Matamoros.