As COVID-19 looms, conditions for migrants stalled at U.S. border are a 'disaster in the making'

Migrant health care workers operating in the border cities of Juarez, Matamoros and Tijuana say the conditions are right for a coronavirus outbreak.
Image: A migrant child sleeps while waiting overnight at the Paso Del Norte Bridge.
A migrant child sleeps while waiting overnight at the Paso del Norte bridge between El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico.Taylor Levy

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By Julia Ainsley

WASHINGTON — On most mornings since the coronavirus pandemic began, Taylor Levy has left her house in El Paso, Texas, at 3 a.m. to drive across the Paso del Norte bridge into Juarez, Mexico, where she delivers masks and what she knows is bad news to the asylum seekers she meets there.

"Lo siento mucho. Lo siento mucho," she said Thursday, expressing her condolences to a Cuban man as she explained that the asylum hearing he had been waiting on for months had been postponed until next April.

The man is one of thousands of immigrants, many from Cuba, Venezuela and Central America, who have been waiting for months in border cities in Mexico trying to get into the U.S. for asylum hearings under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy.

U.S. officials, immigration attorneys and health care workers fear that this population, many living in crowded shelters where families share beds, may be a new hot spot for COVID-19 infections. Migrant health care workers operating in the border cities of Juarez, Matamoros and Tijuana say the conditions are right for a "public health disaster in the making."

The line Levy meets at the bridge sometimes stretches more than 100 people long, often including children and those who have slept on the ground overnight for what they expect to be their next asylum hearing dates or to receive papers that will give them a new dates.

The Trump administration has blocked entry for undocumented immigrants, regardless of their ability to claim asylum, to curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect U.S. immigration officers who would come in contact with them. But the message hasn't been relayed to many of the immigrants, Levy said, in large part because the government is sending notifications to the wrong addresses.

"There's a lot of frustration and a lot of lack of hope," she said.

Over the weekend, the departments of Justice and Homeland Security announced that they will no longer give out new paperwork at ports of entry like the Paso del Norte bridge. Instead, the agencies said in a statement, immigrants with hearing dates before June 22 should present themselves at a port of entry one month after the date most recently given to them. And even then, they don't know what will happen next.

Levy said few immigrants were aware of the new guidance when she arrived at the bridge Monday.

"They won't give them any paperwork. It's a ridiculous thing to explain to people," Levy said.

Peak infection numbers in June or July

Internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security obtained by NBC News forecast worsening poverty for immigrants seeking to cross the southern border, while Mexico is expected to reach its peak COVID-19 infection numbers in June or July.

Although Mexican law guarantees access to health care for non-Mexican citizens, many low-income people are turned away from hospitals, said Levy and Nicole Ramos, who works in Tijuana with Al Otro Lado, an immigrant rights organization. Ramos said hospitals in Tijuana are already overwhelmed.

And public health workers who had been visiting shelters holding asylum seekers are blocked from access under the Mexican government's stay-at-home orders.

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Instead, the organizations now try to give medical advice through remote consultations with shelters, said Phil Canete, a co-director of Refugee Health Alliance.

Although the number of new arrivals at migrant shelters in Mexico and at the U.S. southern border have dropped during the pandemic, those who have been waiting for months are effectively stuck as opportunities for income in Mexico wane.

A migrant woman waits with her child on her back.Taylor Levy

"The largest shelter [in Juarez] has over 500 people living in it. It's like a tinderbox just waiting to erupt if there are infections," Levy said. "The bunk beds are very close to each other. Many people share a bunk bed. It's very problematic."

The Department of Homeland Security and the Mexican government didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.