As The Border Closes, Rio Grande Valley-Based Aid Workers Prepare For A Crisis

This article was published on March 21, 2020 in The Brownsville Herald.

Aid workers responsible for organizing the transport of food and supplies to a camp of asylum seekers past the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros kicked into gear on Friday as the Trump administration announced it would close the U.S/Mexico border to all nonessential travel.

Volunteers with local aid organizations have been keeping distance from the camp in an effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19 into the population of an estimated 2,500 asylum seekers living in tents without the ability to quarantine.

Gaby Zavala, co-founder of Resource Center Matamoros, said locally-based aid networks have been coordinating among each other in anticipation of the border closure and were prepared to shift their efforts to a remote operation through use of technology and skeleton crews of volunteering asylum seekers.

“Most of the organizations have already stopped coming. We’re communicating, of course, through telephone and through Zoom conference, as well,” she said. 

Zavala explained that specific volunteers in Matamoros are handling purchases by use of donations. “People are sending funds in so that we can carry on the work for the organizations that can’t formally be here. Global Response Management is here. Resource Center is here. And there are a couple of Angry Tias and Abuelas that are coming in and continuing to stock up the tent stores and things like that,” she said.

“The Resource Center is helping with regards to the hand washing, the camp sanitation, education, and prevention. We’re also working very closely with INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración) to address serious issues in the camp.”

Zavala said the center, which coordinates medical care and transport to and from medical appointments and court hearings, is still doing trips to hospitals as needed. “We can still continue to provide services. We still have the medical clinic open. And Catholic Charities is still coming over with supplies.”

The director said she plans to stay in Matamoros for the time being and that office staff are not allowing anyone into the building. The center is assisting Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) to provide legal services through use of a video intercom system. Staff collects clients’ information and photographs documents through the screen.

A notice set to be published by the federal government Tuesday explained that “essential” travel includes individuals crossing the border for medical purposes, attending school, or for commercial and trade purposes. 

During a Friday press conference, acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf announced that migrants who have crossed the border unlawfully and without proper documentation will be returned to Mexico, Canada, and “a number of other countries”.

DHS did not immediately respond to questions regarding whether the policy will apply to migrants and asylum seekers currently being held in ICE and CBP custody. Additionally, the agency was asked whether migrants arriving at ports of entry seeking asylum will still be allowed into CBP facilities for credible fear interviews in accordance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture.

The coordinator of L4GG’s Matamoros-based Project Corazon, Charlene D’Cruz, said she suspects asylum seekers won’t be able to apply for asylum at the bridge, as clients were already being denied the opportunity to properly do so by Mexican migration.

CBP officers have been stationed at the international line since June 2018, barring anyone without documents from entering ports to claim asylum. Asylum seekers who wish to begin the process must rely on officials with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), who coordinate with U.S. immigration officials across the bridge.

“I know that people were trying to get on the list and Mexican immigration wasn’t helping them. I know for a fact that a Nicaraguan woman tried to get on the list – she didn’t even go up on the bridge. She tried to do it the right way. She was told, ‘Go marry a Mexican man.’”

The attorney has set up a remote legal assistance program where she teaches clients how to self-represent in the tent court system. She coordinated another remote program where attorneys fill out I-589 applications for asylum and withholding of removal. D’Cruz said she’s been getting calls from across the country asking how to set up similar programs in light of the circumstances.

“We already set this up – our lovely volunteer is attending to clients over the intercom system. He communicates on a Google list and we watch the people coming in. We get their information, we take photos of all their paperwork, and it’s sent to us immediately. We do phone interviews and use Whatsapp. I’m still sending out I-589s,” she said.

D’Cruz has moved operations into Brownsville for the time being. She said she suspects that asylum seekers waiting in camps along the border in-between hearings could be quarantined or deported, depending on how Mexico will handle its humanitarian visa process for asylum seekers currently in proceedings. 

As asylum seekers placed in the ‘Remain in Mexico’ program are in ‘detained’ status by the United States, placed in the care of Mexico by the Trump administration, it remains unclear how the closure will impact those waiting in the camp.

She said hearings in the Brownsville Immigration Hearing Facility have still been happening, but that there are reports of judges not showing up, as well as clients being ushered into hearings only to be handed a continuance notice. “Why? Because they don’t have away to mail it to them, because they’re stuck in Mexico,” she said.

Sergio Cordova of Team Brownsville said the organization has been coordinating with a local restaurant that serves breakfast to the camp, in collaboration with World Central Kitchen, to continue meal service in a safe manner. WCC is currently transporting meals by vehicle, instead of in wagons, to a crew of asylum seekers who are serving lunch and dinner.

“We told volunteers not to come from out of town anymore because we don’t want to be the ones to introduce the virus to the camp. Anybody that was flying in – we told them not to come, and that if they came, they were not going to be allowed into the camp.”

“For the last two weeks we’ve just been dropping off the meals,” he said, explaining that Team Brownsville is not yet certain which aid workers will be granted permission to cross, or how they will obtain permission to do so.

A statement posted by Angry Tias and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley on Facebook indicated that the group is working to provide supplies to last for the next several weeks while keeping in touch with residents. “To avert the possbility of volunteers transmitting the virus to those in the camp, Angry Tias and Abuelas is following the guidance of Global Response Management and the Mexican federal authorities by no longer going into the camp,” the coalition wrote.

Sam Bishop, Project Coordinator for GRM in Matamoros, said on Friday that staff and volunteers doctors are in the process of getting letters from both the U.S. and Mexico in order to cross without hinderance during the closure. “Depending on how long that takes, there may be a day or two of down time,” he said.

The NGO just put out an all-call for volunteers – healthy and not at high risk of contracting COVID-19 – to assist in the camp as doctors prepare to deal with the spread of the virus. “You have 2,500 people living in very close proximity. It’s a ripe place for an infection to just run rampant through the camp,” he said.

Bishop explained that space is limited and so doctors won’t be able to isolate patients completely. The team is working to build a 20-bed field hospital by the end of the month. The coordinator said staff expects hospitals in Matamoros to be filled to capacity, while doctors and attorneys will no longer be able to cross asylum seekers seeking emergency care into the United States. 

GRM’s Executive Director Helen Perry said on Thursday that staff met with local public health officials and learned the city of nearly 500,000 residents has access to only 10 ventilators and 40 ICU beds.

“We’re prepared for the reality that it’s going to hit the camp really, really hard and really, really quickly. We’re going to work with the Mexican healthcare system. But because we can’t fully rely on them, we’re building as much extra capacity as we can,” Bishop said.

Working in the doctors’ favor is that the population of the camp is relatively young, Bishop explained. “A quarter of the population, almost, is under five years old. The rate of severe cases and of fatal cases of COVID-19 is disproportionately higher amongst the elderly portion of the population.”

The other factor, Bishop said, is that many residents are fairly healthy. “Some people literally walked from Chiapas or further. I think they’re a resilient group. And our report within the community has allowed us to educate people,” he added.

“We’re hopeful that the protective measures we’re taking with education and sanitation are going to do something to slow it a little bit. But, it’s unavoidable that it will reach here eventually, and it’s probably going to be a pretty high case load.”