The Health Crisis on the Northern Mexico Border – A Report

On the 28th of July, 2020, the Harvard Global Health Institute (HGHI) and Boston College School of Social Work organized a webinar titled “The Health Crisis on the Northern Mexico Border: Cross-Border Implications of U.S Immigration Policies”. It focused on the ongoing health crisis, specifically in the COVID situation, faced by the asylum seekers and prospective immigrants into the United States of America, in the northern border of Mexico. Debayan Das Gupta reports.

Welcoming the viewers, Megan Diamond, Assistant Director of Programs and Innovations at HGHI, laid out the agenda of the webinar. She announced the launch of a report on the health conditions of the asylum seekers along the northern Mexico border, and handed the discussion over to the keynote speaker of the event, Olga Byrne, Director of Immigration at International Rescue Committee.

Byrne gave a historical overview of the United States’ policies which laid the foundation of the crisis at the northern border of Mexico today. She emphasized that this is a longstanding human rights crisis, with its basis in policies by white supremacist restrictionists such as Senator Coleman Blease, dating back a century. Repatriation programs resulted in almost two million people being deported to Mexico in the 1930s, followed by the largest mass deportation in American history, Operation Wetback, of 1953-54. The tradition has continued, with the share of children caught between immigration policies rising manifold. 76,000 children reportedly arrived, unaccompanied, with half a million people travelling as families with young children arriving at the U.S border in 2019. Byrne’s mentioned that her organization is among several NGOs extending services in the dire situation exacerbated by the pandemic. Though the MPP (Migrant Protection Protocols) have resulted in harsh treatments by the police under President Trump, its foundations, she said, had been laid by his predecessors, even Obama. Byrne ended her keynote mentioning that there is minimal actual change in the conditions which are rampant with violence, separation and kidnapping, saying “Seeking safety in the U.S border is like stepping into a landmine.”

Megan Diamond then took over the discussion to walk the viewers through an overview of her report titled “A Population in Peril: A Health Crisis on the Northern Border of Mexico”, meant to be a launch point for policy makers and social advocates to access data in the collective effort to stop violence, persecution and insecurity among the migrants. The report highlights several key problems such as inaccessible housing, high crime rates and lack of access to health services among others, and ends with fifteen recommendations in an effort to guide the way forward.

A screenshot from Diamond’s overview of the report.

The moderator for the event, Jacqueline Bhabha, Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, reiterated the deeply rooted history of exclusion and racism as already mentioned by Byrne, and the need for concerted political effort to solve the crisis. Welcoming the first speaker of the panel, she stated that the current discussion shall focus on the current situation, and its possible remedies.

Eunice Rendón, Executive Director, Agenda Migrante and an International Consultant on Security and Migration, was the first speaker from the panel. She started out by speaking on the MPP and how it is against asylum seekers, and the simultaneous ineptitude shown by the Mexican government to handle the issues at its northern border. While health and other social problems were already rampant among the migrants, Rendón indicated to the viewers the extent to which problems have been exacerbated with the arrival of COVID19. Without access to physical or mental health facilities, crime is on the rise in these environments. Higher homicide rates have been witnessed, criminal groups are on the lookout for unsupervised children to employ them in various nefarious activities in exchange of money. Rendón spoke of several teenagers who had assumed adult livelihoods for basic sustenance whom she had interviewed. She ended her address with an emphasis on the push factors, the main causes which result in caravans upon caravans of migrants descending upon the border, and the need of empathetic policies which see the migrants as humans, and not numbers, to resolve the crisis. Summarizing the situation of the migrants, she said “People prefer to take the risk of COVID, rather than being killed in their own country.” Moderator Bhabha remarked how the “perverse educational training” of smuggling and other illegal businesses were putting the lives of children at risk in these locations.

Joanna Williams, Director of Education and Advocacy, Kino Border Initiative, spoke about her organization’s humanitarian aid and services to the migrants in Nogales, Arizona and Nogales, Mexico. She pointed out how the precarity of the situations of migrants, deportees and asylum seekers at the northern Mexico border had become such established facts that people have come to quietly accept the inhumanity meted out to the victims without question. It is here that Williams argues that though “the U.S-Mexico border in many ways, is a microcosm”, one should not look at the geographical location as a certain “hell-hole”, festered with crime violence and injustice. To emphasize on her point of accepted precarity and perseverance of the affected, she shared an anecdote of a Venezuelan family who had been stuck at Nogales initially due to the metering policy (which filters and restricts travel into the U.S), and now, due to closing down of the border from March 21 to non-essential travel. Her account painted a picture of the unbearable suffering, but also the determination and resilience of the immigrant families. When asked by Bhabha on the priorities of the speaker in order to resolve the crisis, Williams mentioned both diplomatic measures to change policies, and also humanitarian support in the fight for a better life for the migrants.

The next speaker, Thalia Porteny, Postdoctoral Fellow at REACH Labs, Tufts University, focused on the challenges in testing for COVID19 in the border area and the discrepancies in allocation of testing resources at the local level. Though the first case of COVID19 in Mexico took place on February 27, it took a lot of time for the Mexican government, as well as the U.S federal government, to establish and implement required policies at the state level. These inefficiencies were magnified at the municipal level. The local government bodies failed to meet the needs of the migrant population in cities like El Paso, Matamoros, and states of Tamaulipas, Sonora and others which have adjoining borders with the U.S. Porteny highlighted the racism within the migrant communities. Migrants of African origin were mistreated and discriminated against in hospitals and aid centers run by the central American populations in the border towns. Consequently, she requested for more testing in general in Mexico, and described the lack of possibilities of screening people when no one knows if one is infected with the virus in the first place. Municipalities in Sonora have reported shockingly high figures of 80% positive results in COVID19 test drives. There are innumerable problems in recording and registering deaths and illnesses, and the general lack of documentation made Porteny lament “what’s happening on the Mexico border is not that clear”. The Moderator, Bhabha, added that apparent protection policies implemented by the governments are, in actuality, further contaminating the already at-risk communities.

The last speaker of  the panel, Alejandro Olayo-Méndez, Assistant Professor at Boston College School of Social Work, talked about three points. First, there are various categories of migrants, those who have been deported from the States, those who are waiting for appointment into the MPP, and the realities experienced by these migrants vary. Similarly, an asylum seeker from one city, say, Tijuana, has different issues from another, say, in Juaréz. Secondly, Olayo-Méndez talks about the various racial profiles affected by the border controls. Restating the dire situation of the Africans as described by Porteny, Olayo-Méndez also mentions groups of Asian immigrants, deported from the States, clustered in very poor conditions in Tijuana. Third some migrants have better opportunities due to them being better organized. The Cubans and Venezuelans in Juaréz gain better treatment and access to resources, although “They don’t have the money, they have to rely on the shelter”, Migrants have to face many barriers to access, although policies by the Mexican government look good on paper. The policies are not executed on the field, which leads to people having no infrastructure to access basic human rights in these locations.

In the discussion, Eunice Rendón stated that the most important political challenge was the MPP program, which did more harm than good, in reply to a question which sought answer to what policies would be necessary if a new president came to power in November 2020. Bhabha added that the government needed a more divest-invest approach, de-investing from the heavily militarized border control measures and investing in betterment and promotion of the border communities. When asked about the estimate of time needed to change the situation at hand, Olayo-Méndez shifted the focus away from a political timeline, to a human timeline; he talked about how lifelong scars on young people in these situations will affect them dearly. Joanna Williams stated that filing petitions seeking redressal of violation of rights of asylum seekers with the American Commission has resulted in nothing. When asked about COVID denial among the immigrants, Williams accepted the harsh truth that some immigrants are inclined to believe that the virus is a conspiracy, since it has been used as the primary excuse to refuse entry into the United States, although precautions and measures to counter the spread of the virus are at full swing under NGOs. Rendón talked about how changes are slowly being made at both military and bureaucratic levels to better handle the border situation. Olayo-Méndez concluded the discussion by pointing out how COVID is being used as an excuse in dismantling the asylum-seeking system of the U.S, a country which has traditionally been welcoming to immigrants of all kinds.

Jacqueline Bhabha concluded the panel discussion, expressing her gratitude to the esteemed panelists. The webinar focused on calling out the historical legacy of the injustice towards migrants fleeing violence in their home nations, seeking asylum in the United States; and how the pandemic has amplified the border restrictions while simultaneously giving rise to a severe health crisis in the northern border of Mexico.

Debayan Das Gupta is a student of Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata and can be reached at debayan9911@gmail.com.

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