Advocates fear ‘catastrophic’ COVID-19 crisis at migrant camps if ‘Wait in Mexico’ not terminated


Lawyers tell of overcrowded conditions and poor hygiene at Mexican facilities where asylum seekers wait for day in U.S. immigration court

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Migrants sent to wait out in Mexico asylum hearings in U.S. immigration court were living in precarious safety and hygienic conditions before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Now, they risk more than the mere stomach flu or a skin infection with a killer that thrives inside closed quarters where many people are in close proximity, breathe the same air and share often filthy portable toilets, advocates say.

“Asylum seekers not only run the risk of violence every day but now also of getting COVID-19,” said Ariana Sawyer, a lawyer with Human Rights Watch. “They live overcrowded, sometimes five persons to a tent with poor access to medical care. The U.S. government is forcing families to live in anti-hygienic conditions that increase their risk of getting coronavirus.”

Sawyer and other migrant advocates on Thursday renewed pleas for the U.S. to end the Remain in Mexico program, also known as Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), on humanitarian grounds. They pointed to recent outbreaks at migrant camps in Juarez, Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa as evidence of a public health crisis getting worse by the day.

The Leona Vicario migrant shelter in Juarez last week reported 12 COVID-19 infections, the one in Nuevo Laredo had 16 in late April and one in Reynosa four a few days ago. “It’s more urgent than ever for us to end this program. It’s extremely dangerous,” Sawyer said.

During a teleconference on Zoom, she shared that on a recent visit to Matamoros’ migrant tent city she witnessed people unable to observe social distancing and dealing with clogged toilets.

Overcrowded conditions at migrant camps worry advocates about the risk of additional COVID-19 outbreaks. (photo taken from Zoom)

The year-long waits for court hearings, physical discomfort and fear of dying or losing a child to the coronavirus only adds to the trauma endured by thousands who came to the U.S. border fleeing violence in their countries, other advocates said.

“The experience of crossing borders, of being in government custody is traumatizing. Living without resources in a country they don’t know is also traumatic,” said Nicolas Palazzo, staff attorney at Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso.

He agrees that the 65,000 or so migrants placed on the MPP program were living in crisis due to the lack of basic services — including no mental health services — prior to the pandemic. But at least they had the option of an emergency health insurance card from the Mexican government or the outside chance of getting humanitarian parole on medical grounds from the U.S. government.

Those options are no more.

“There was a basic understanding that conditions on the Mexican border weren’t a favorable environment for (migrants) to get medical treatment or medication. Humanitarian parole was requested,” Palazzo said. “But since March 2020, that policy exists no more; CDC guidelines basically closed the border for public health reasons. People presenting themselves (for asylum) are immediately sent back to Mexico.”

CDC are the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a U.S. federal agency.

Rather than dispute the U.S. advocates’ accounts of how Central American, Cuban, African and other foreigners are living at the camps, some Mexican officials vouch for the shortcomings.

They say the problem is that they were promised many resources by the Mexican federal government, which largely didn’t come. Also, they say the U.S. hasn’t stopped sending over migrants even through the coronavirus crisis.

“There were agreements that were not honored” by Mexico City authorities, said Gloria de Jesus Molina Gamboa, secretary of health for the state of Tamaulipas.

She said her main concern was the tent city in Matamoros where the overcrowded conditions are worse and where migrants refuse to be relocated for fear of losing their place in line for asylum hearings.

“In Matamoros, we are at highrisk conditions. There are 1,500 migrants, many of them children, on the streets, inside tents. It’s a (powder keg) in terms of COVID,” she said. “Also, U.S. residents and citizens come and go as they please from South Texas, where they have a lot of COVID and where that state reopened its economy prematurely.”

Ten cities in Tamaulipas share a border with the United States, she said, and many of those cities have the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state.

COVID-19 fatalities in the Tamaulipas cities that border Texas. (graph courtesy State of Tamaulipas)

In Juarez, Mayor Armando Cabada said U.S. Customs and Border Protection is still returning up to 1,500 migrants per month, some in the MPP program, others being repatriated Mexicans.

He said his city has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars providing for the migrants and has seen some of its employees who assist the newcomers come down with COVID-19 themselves.

He said between 35,000 and 40,000 migrants have arrived in Juarez on their way to the United States since October of 2018. He said the long waits for a court hearing, the lack of resources and the high asylum denial rates in U.S. immigration court have made most of the migrants pack up and go home or try to cross somewhere else.

“It’s hard to say how many remain, exactly. We estimate between 5,000 and 7,000 migrants,” he said. “Many decide to return, disillusioned after realizing there will be no visa for them, that nine out of 10 petitioners are rejected. Most of those who are still here are from Cuba.”

Unlike most Central American families, the Cubans who came to Juarez are adults who come alone and have relatives in the United States who send them money. Many have professional degrees and have found temporary employment in Juarez pharmacies and other businesses. Some have even signed up as emergency volunteers at hospitals and shelters.

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