EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — Border residents are yet to feel the worst of the COVID-19 crisis in terms of lost wages and many more cases of the disease in their communities.

Immigration detention centers are one particular red flag but so are layoffs creating a growing number of uninsured persons, as well as the slowness of the federal government in responding to the crisis.

Those were some takeaways from an online gathering of experts hosted Friday by scholars from the University of Texas at Arlington and UT-El Paso to understand the impact of COVID-19 on the border.

UTEP economics professor Thomas Fullerton. (Courtesy photo)

The region already has seen record new jobless claims filed in March, but benchmarks are likely to keep falling through June. Texas cities like El Paso and McAllen could see unemployment rates of 18% and 20% by then, said UTEP economics professor Thomas Fullerton.

“We have seen thousands of (business) closures. The big question is how many of those will translate into bankruptcies,” he said. The closings are due to stay-at-home orders issued on both sides of the border to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and restrictions to non-essential travel that have brought burgeoning international trade to a trickle.

As the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths climb in the United States, economic experts issue increasingly dire forecasts. The consensus now is that of a “U-shaped” recovery that might take up to two years, Fullerton said.

Meantime, those who lose their jobs will probably lose their health insurance, so the federal government must help by, among other things, reopening the marketplace for enrollment in the Affordable Care Act, the others said.

“One area of legitimate concern over policy actions (by the Trump administration) is health insurance. Many people who lose their jobs need health insurance coverage. Revival of ACA provisions would be a logical step to take, but as of now the White House has tried to avoid the question,” Fullerton said.

Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, chief of the Center for Health Metrics and Evaluation for the American Heart Association, is concerned that COVID-19 will disproportionally affect border residents because many are diabetic and some might shun seeking medical care because of immigration status and not wanting to be classified as a “public charge.”

But there’s another segment of migrants that are even more at risk of contagion.

“ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has refused to release asylum seekers with no criminal history who are not a flight risk. They just arrived here, so the government is putting a blanket label of flight risk,” said Edith Tapia, policy research analyst for El Paso’s Hope Border Institute. “They have family in the U.S. where they could stay at home safely, as opposed to detention center pods that hold up to 60 people in close quarters […] where the risk of transmission is a lot higher than it has to be.”

Edith Tapia, policy research analyst for El Paso’s Hope Border Institute. (Courtesy photo)

Already, lawmakers like U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, have sent letters to the Department of Homeland Security demanding an investigation into the handling of COVID-19 risks and the health and safety of detainees amid reports from service providers about the lack of social distancing, lack of basic hygiene supplies or adequate medical screenings.

“In the midst of this pandemic, it is urgent that your agency investigate these reports immediately. […] there could be a severe outbreak of COVID-19 among this vulnerable population and throughout the entire El Paso region,” her letter states.

ICE officials on Friday told Border Report no COVID-19 cases had been reported as of Thursday at detention facilities in the El Paso Sector and that the agency follows care guidelines required by law.

Jeremy Slack, professor of sociology and anthropology at UTEP, called for asylum seekers to be paroled into the United States while their claims are resolved, instead of keeping them in detention or sending them to Mexico under the Migrant Protection Protocols program.

Detention centers “are places with a very bad reputation for lack of medical care and not being attentive to people’s health needs already,” Slack said. “If you release them from detention, they still have to wear an ankle monitor. There is no justification for keeping people in these facilities that will cause a high number of (COVID-19) cases were there is no need. They have multiple options immediately available to avert this.”

But if there’s a bright side to one of the worst crisis the U.S.-Mexico border region has ever faced is that, at the end of it, its people will emerge stronger, some predict.

“There is good collaboration on both sides (of the border) to address this pandemic. All three levels of government are talking and there is good community cooperation,” said Mauricio Ibarra Ponce de Leon, Mexican consul general in El Paso. “I think this region will come out strengthened after coronavirus, the same way (we) came out stronger after (the Aug. 3 mass shooting in El Paso).”

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