A 60-Year-Old Asylum Seeker Collapsed During An Asthma Attack On The Gateway International Bridge. Customs and Border Protection Filmed Her On The Ground.

A 60-year-old woman seeking asylum had an asthma attack at the international line on the Gateway International Bridge in Brownsville, Texas on Thursday. Photographs posted by the woman’s attorney on Facebook showed her collapsed on the ground as officers on the U.S. side filmed the incident on a cell phone.

The woman is from Venezuela. Her attorney, Jennifer Scarborough, says her client has been living a tent in the camp of asylum seekers just past the bridge in Matamoros, Tamaulipas since December. She has a lung condition and suffers from diabetes. 

Both conditions qualify the woman as a person at risk of contracting severe illness as COVID-19 spreads worldwide, according to information published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The attorney, concerned for her client’s safety, presented the woman at the bridge twice this week in an attempt to parole her to family members already living in the country.

Customs and Border Protection denied the woman entry both times. During Thursday’s asthma attack, a group of officers stationed at the international line allegedly declined to assist while the woman laid on the ground several feet in front of them, as she was in Mexico. “The doctors from the camp came and took her back. CBP did not let her enter,” said Scarborough in a phone call.

“It’s not safe for her to be living there.”

Prior to the implementation of ‘Remain in Mexico’, asylum seekers could be paroled into the United States after passing a credible fear interview and meeting a series of criteria determining they don’t present a flight risk. Scarborough argued that if the process were still in place, her client could safely quarantine with family members. “CBP and the Trump administration have created a complete disaster. They’re putting the American public at risk. They’re still holding court. When these people go to court, they’re having contact with the CBP officers, with the interpreters. They could have easily paroled them in a long time ago,” the attorney said.

“Attorneys have been saying since that tent camp sprung up this summer that it’s a public health crisis waiting to happen. They have doctors there. They’ve been able to install basic sanitation systems. But, we all know it’s not sufficient with people living in such close vicinity in a communal environment. As soon as there’s an outbreak, it’s going to be catastrophic.”

A CBP directive on the implementation of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, ‘Remain in Mexico’ program) states that certain undocumented individuals are “not amenable” to the program, including any person with “Known physical/mental health issues”.

At the Brownsville Port of Entry, attorneys attempting to parole sick and disabled clients – considered to be in ‘detained’ status for the duration of proceedings although the government returns the asylum seekers to Mexico with no aid or oversight – have in other cases been repeatedly denied entry, even in emergency scenarios.

The directive grants officials discretion to determine entry on a case-by-case basis, but again states that certain factors should exclude asylum seekers from ‘Remain in Mexico’. These include, but are not limited to, “prior removal, criminal history, it is more likely than not that the alien will face persecution or torture in Mexico, and permanent bars to readmission,” the document states.

Officers did not allow the woman to enter the port and allegedly did not attempt to coordinate the transport of the woman to an emergency room in the United States, as might have been allowed under a medical directive revised on Dec. 30, 2019 in response to the deaths of multiple migrant children in custody.

Asked to clarify proper protocol for officers stationed at the line during emergency scenarios, CBP official stated, “Questions regarding incidents occurring within the sovereign nation of Mexico should be directed to Government of Mexico authorities.”

Photo Credit: Jennifer Scarborough/Facebook

A supervisor present at the bridge did not provide the attorney with a reason for the denial or any paperwork regarding this week’s decisions to deny her client parole. Scarborough said she did have a conversation with CBP’s attorney Erik Drootman, but that the decision is not appealable and she is unsure what next steps are available, other than continuing to monitor the situation.

One of the photographs taken on the bridge showed a supervisor, Officer Cabrera, filming the woman on his cell phone. Cabrera was documented photographing attorney Charlene D’Cruz, a visiting doctor, advocates, and multiple asylum-seeking families with disabled children during an attempt to cross the families in February.

Helen Perry, Executive Director of Global Response Management – whose volunteer doctors responded to the asthma attack – said in phone call that officers offered a wheelchair but would not cross the international line. Perry said she understands that officials can’t assist in Mexico, but added, “I’m not sure that also allows them to laugh and take pictures of her.”

“They can’t cross over – that doesn’t mean they’re not capable of providing or coordinating back to their Mexican counterpart,” she said of the incident.

Scarborough’s client is homeless and would not have proper access to medical care in the event she contracts the illness. According to the CDC’s website, “People with asthma may be at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19. COVID-19 can affect your respiratory tract (nose, throat, lungs), cause an asthma attack, and possibly lead to pneumonia and acute respiratory disease.”

The agency writes that there is currently no treatment or vaccine to prevent COVID-19. “The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus,” the website recommends.

On Friday, the Trump administration declared a national emergency in response to the outbreak. Texas Governor Greg Abbott issued a statewide Disaster Declaration mandating limited public gatherings as well as business and school closures. Officials in the Rio Grande Valley began a delayed response without adequate access to testing. 

Across the border, the response appears to be almost entirely in the hands of aid networks. Residents of the camp in Matamoros seek care through a medical trailer operated by GRM. The NGO serves the the roughly 2,500 camp residents, though the team estimates there are another 1,000 to 2,000 asylum seekers living within the city. In addition to the asylum-seeking population, GRM also treats a few dozen locals.

Perry said that aid workers met with local public health officials and the hospital system before realizing the city of Matamoros is severely underequipped to handle an outbreak. “We were told that the city of Matamoros has 10 ventilators and 40 ICU beds. They have a population of around 500,000 people,” she said.

“We felt like our best option to provide care for our population was to set up a 20-bed field hospital where we would be able to treat patients who are moderately ill to prevent them from becoming critically ill.”

GRM is funded privately and, according to Perry, has not received “a single dollar” from either the United States or Mexico. In Matamoros, the United Nations has no presence in the unregulated camp, forcing doctors to face the crisis without government assistance or the ability to track numbers. Perry said the organization is hoping to have the hospital up and running in a month. 

The team is short-staffed and in need of funding to cover the cost of equipment. “It takes resources. I would say to people we could use their support now more than ever. We have to buy the drugs. We have to buy the beds. We need all the things that go into running a normal hospital,” Perry explained.

Volunteers who are sick are being cautioned to stay out of the camp for the time being. Perry encouraged anyone interested in assisting to donate, which can be done via GRM’s website.