1123 GMT October 28, 2021
The city of Matamoros, Mexico, sits directly across the border from Brownsville, Texas, the US. Over 2,500 people have gathered there since the US President Donald Trump administration rolled out the “Remain in Mexico” policy, in a squalid encampment along the US-Mexico border, while they wait for their asylum hearings. They live in cramped, unsanitary quarters — some in tents, others in makeshift shelters — without electricity or running water. They are increasingly susceptible to respiratory illness and malnutrition.
On April 1, the US Department of Homeland Security and the Executive Office for Immigration Review announced that they would be postponing all hearings because of the coronavirus outbreak. They live in constant threat of the virus, all for exercising their human right to claim asylum.
Volunteers and nonprofit groups have all but vanished. UNICEF left. Doctors Without Borders still offers some services, but Global Response Management (GRM), an international nonprofit organization, is the only consistent presence. Its volunteer doctors, nurses and medics, in some cases asylum seekers, have been doing their best.
But the agency’s best is limited to distributing vitamins, masks and moving tents apart. Under normal circumstances, if you can call any of this normal, doctors and nurses can’t do much aside from tending to a wound that requires stitches, and diagnosing strep throat or the flu. They aren’t able to get tests to diagnose COVID-19.
The executive director of GRM, who is a nurse, reports that within the camp there were five patients with COVID-19 symptoms. The agency reported these to local authorities but were refused testing. It asked that these migrants be taken away from the camp to nearby hotels, but Mexican immigration authorities have not authorized the move.
Matamoros is the second largest city in the state of Tamaulipas, with a population of over 520,000. While there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the camps, there are some eight confirmed cases in the city. People with mild or moderate cases could be quarantined in their tents and more severe cases sent to local hospitals. But, according to GRM, the city’s five public hospitals have 10 ventilators and 40 intensive care unit beds between them. An outbreak would be catastrophic.
Mexico has been slow to react to the coronavirus threat. In mid-March, President Andres Manuel López Obrador told reporters, “I have faith that we’re going to move our dear Mexico forward, that these misfortunes, pandemics will not harm us.” He has defiantly kissed and hugged supporters at recent events. Mexico has reported at least 4,219 cases of COVID-19 and 273 deaths. Medical workers have protested against the lack of protective gear.
Western news organizations are abuzz with worry over migrants on our southern border. They fret over what will happen if an outbreak were to erupt in the camp. But the plight of the migrants is nothing but a morbid concern. We’re treated to images, taken from helicopters, of bodies lying on top of each other, swollen by the sun, and drowned children and their parents, embracing. It’s the classic voyeuristic Jonestown footage. This is a mass killing of vulnerable people of color, preyed on because they dreamed of a better life. Despite the worry now about the asylum-seekers in Matamoros, no one is rushing to help them. People are just rushing to read about this impending mass grave.
As the mounting toll of the coronavirus comes into view, it’s clear that migrants around the world are among the most vulnerable. They often lack health insurance, struggle to make ends meet and are often in poor health. They don’t have the luxury or the freedom to socially distance themselves from others. The undocumented men and women in our communities are on the front lines — often with no protective equipment or safety net — risking their lives to do the jobs most Americans won’t. They are disinfecting hospitals and doctors’ offices, delivering your food and taking care of your elderly relatives.
President Trump believes the medical community’s insistence on quarantine is a conspiracy to destroy his presidency. My parents are among the aging, immunocompromised and undocumented in New York City. If they get sick, they will die. The Trump administration will not help us. We migrants, on the border, or here in New York, are left to fend for ourselves.
This article was first published on The New York Times.