COVID-19 At The Border: 'If One Case Gets Into The Camp, The Entire Camp Will Have It'

Mar 20, 2020
Originally published on March 20, 2020 8:45 am

As the U.S. continues to deal with COVID-19, a migrant camp along the southern border in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas,  is also bracing for what could be a deadly outbreak.

More than 1,500 asylum seekers are forced to live at this tent camp as their asylum claims unfold in U.S. immigration court under the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico policy.

Fernando is from Honduras and has lived in the camp for almost a year. Like others here he’ll only speak if we don’t use his full name. 

He holds his 10-month-old baby girl. 

“Want to go to the United States, or back to Honduras?” he playfully asks the baby girl.

Fernando said living here hasn’t been easy and that it’s been a life of uncertainty. 

Now there’s been an unexpected twist. 

The Coronavirus might reach the camp and he feels they’re invisible in the eyes of the Mexican government.

“We’re not a priority here. We’re in their way. That’s how they see us,” Fernando said. “Imagine if we get the virus, we don’t have security.”

He said COVID-19 has put his family in a tough spot.

“We’re thinking about sending our kids to the U.S.,” Fernando said. “It’s hard to be separated from your children, but I feel like they’ll be safer from the virus in the U.S. than here living in tents and these conditions.”  

Because his kids are minors, ages 16 years, 9 years and 10 months, Fernando knows that U.S. policy will admit them to the country if they are unaccompanied by an adult, which means they will have to cross alone.

“We’re going to try this tonight to see if the kids can cross, if not, we’re going to try to cross them through the river,” Fernando said.

While some families think of a way out of the camps, others do their best to make the tents safe and healthy.

Down the path from Fernando’s tent is Yamaly, who’s from Honduras and has three kids.

She’s lived at the camp for several months. 

Yamaly runs a camp store where asylum seekers can buy essentials. She’s worried about her children and the people around her.

“We don’t want to have anyone lose their life, whether they be adults or kids,” Yamalu said. “We hope no one dies because of this virus.”

The camp has begun taking precautionary steps.

There are signs posted with cartoon sketches on how to properly wash hands. Another sign reads “inventa un nuevo saludo” – which means “invent a new greeting.” 

People are no longer saying hello with a kiss on the cheek, or a handshake.

But the bigger impact? It comes from U.S. volunteers.

“If they stop coming, we think it would cause chaos here because we depend a lot on the help from the organizations of the United States,” Yamaly said.

Some of the nonprofits say they will no longer cross into Matamoros, or limit their crossings, due to fear of spreading the virus to the migrants, or contracting it themselves.

One organization that will continue at the camp: Global Response Management, or GRM.

“We are good at disasters, and try to think of the worst case scenario and plan for that and hope for the best,” said Daniel Taylor, a remote paramedic with GRM. 

He said following U.S. safety guidelines is almost impossible in a tented camp. 

“Things like social distancing is very difficult here because the living conditions, some people are in 10 foot by 10 foot tents and there are maybe four or five people in that, so that’s a little impossible,” Taylor said.

Dan and his team plan to open a field hospital, which is essentially a separate tent, where they’ll treat infected patients from the camp. 

They, in collaboration with the Resource Center in Matamoros, also added additional hand washing stations.

As an added step, they’re pursuing coronavirus testing kits, which are crucial for containing the virus – if only they can cut through the red tape. 

“Our organization actually has access to rapid tests that we could have imported into Mexico,” said Helen Perry, executive director of GRM. “We need the Mexican government to approve that. So far that has not happened.”

Perry was trained in the Army as an Ebola response nurse. 

“We’re even offering to give 500 kits to the local hospital for them to be able to test,” Perry said. “We desperately need them.”

While the testing kits are tied up by the Mexican government, there are several asylum seekers at the camp with medical vulnerabilities. 

Perry said many of the migrants are dealing with hypertension, physical disabilities, malnutrition and life threatening illnesses. She said these high-risk migrants, now more than ever, should be paroled into the U.S. and removed from The Remain in Mexico program (formally also known as Migrant Protection Protocols).

“The reality is that people in this camp have families waiting on the other side where they can be in homes and they could be isolated and they could be taking the appropriate precautions to protect themselves,” Perry said. “Here, it’s inevitable, if one case gets into the camp the entire camp will have it.”

Getting out of the camps is potentially life saving and one migrant has decided it’s the best move for his family. 

After a day of agonizing – Fernando has made up his mind – his 16 and 9-year-old kids will cross the border alone.

“It’s going to be hard,” Fernando said. “My heart is going to break into several pieces, but too bad. It’s very hard.” 

At nightfall, he and his wife hug their children tightly. Everyone is in tears. 

A girl at the camp says, “We will miss you, but you will be happier in the United States.” 

The kids walk across the international bridge to turn themselves into U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents – all in hopes of being safer there, than here at the camp.

Reynaldo Leaños Jr. can be reached at and on Twitter at @ReynaldoLeanos.

Copyright 2020 Texas Public Radio. To see more, visit Texas Public Radio.