The Pandemic, Border Communities, and Decisions Facing Migrant Shelters

Fr. Pat Murphy, c.s.
Centro Scalabrini – Casa del Migrante
Tijuana, Mexico

Editorial Credit: ironwas / Shutterstock

The Pandemic, Border Communities, and Decisions Facing Migrant Shelters

Not too long ago, when someone said, “Let’s go out for a few Coronas,” it brought a smile to my face because it meant we were going out for a few beers and some excellent Tijuana Tacos. Now when we hear the word corona, it conjures up thoughts of fever, dry coughs, respiratory failure, masks, antimicrobial gel, ventilators, testing, and the possibility of death.

Nowadays, whether I watch the news in Spanish or English, 90 percent of the coverage is about COVID-19, how many more persons have been infected in the United States and Mexico, and how badly the pandemic will affect the economy along the border. In fact, the situation has become so dire that the two governments recently took the harsh decision to initiate a partial closing of the border. In recent days, I crossed the border twice to go to the bank. The number of people crossing has decreased drastically.  In Tijuana as of the first week of April, we had about 22 cases, while San Diego had more than 1,200 cases and 20 deaths. I have no doubt that Tijuana has many more cases, but it is not doing a lot of testing. This confusion has not stopped the United States being declared number one in the category of “Most Coronavirus Cases in The World.”

Meanwhile, each day President Trump continues to bend the truth in a variety of ways, always reaching the conclusion that conditions are getting better and everything is under control. President Lopez Obrador (AMLO), who only very recently stopped hugging people and kissing babies, also tries to convince us that everything is under control and México has all it needs in terms of doctors and hospitals.  In fact, Mexico’s private hospitals and the health care system is wonderful for the rich and upper middle class, but when it comes to caring for the poor and lower middle class it is a complete mess. If COVID-19 attacks places like Tijuana with vigor, we are in for a catastrophe. In fact, the three public hospitals for the poor are already full to capacity.

If things are bad for the poor, they are even worse for the thousands of migrants and refugees along the northern border of Mexico. They have no insurance, no money in the bank for a rainy day, many have no shelter to speak of, and they must survive on charity for their daily bread. Those who are lucky enough to have jobs will not stop going to work just because they have a cough and a fever. They continue to work because they need to work in order to survive.

In the meantime, many border shelters have made some decisions to over whether to:

  • Close their doors and only distribute food;
  • Close their doors and adopt the “stay at home” approach; or
  • Partially close their close doors and accept a limited number of persons per day.

At the Casa del Migrante in Tijuana, we have chosen the third option.  We seriously contemplated the first option,  but thought that if we closed our doors to the poor and most desperate, what would we have left? My head says one thing, but my heart says another. Meanwhile, we have implemented all the precautions you could imagine. We also have a doctor for 25-hours a week who is an expert in all types of viruses. The rest I believe is in God’s hands.

This crisis has caused us to change our lives and daily practices as follows:

  • Excessive handwashing and sanitizing hands are the new norm.
  • No external volunteers can enter the Casa.
  • We have been forced to tell our cooks to stay at home, particularly since most are senior citizens.
  • We suspended our monthly senior’s citizen group indefinitely.
  • Less in-kind donations are arriving.
  • We have had to defer purchasing some badly needed resources, in favor of purchasing items such as gloves, masks, paper plates, hand sanitizer, hand soap and the installation of electric hand dryers.
  • Some of our staff have requested to work from home due to pressing medical situations.
  • No groups or press people can enter the Casa, so we conduct all interviews by phone

In sum, our lives have become more complicated as we try to care for the poorest of the poor without any real assistance from the Mexican government.

In addition, a few situations complicate life at the border for those who work with migrants and refugees. The main challenge has been that asylum-seekers who were already in a state of limbo, have been pushed to a new level of uncertainty and insecurity.  Immigration courts have mostly remained open for detainee hearings and filings, but asylum appointments for others have been postponed. Of course, it is no great surprise that the only courts that remain open are those for deportation. People who have been living in very precarious positions are now being left to fend for themselves for several more months. The very vulnerable have now become even more vulnerable and only God knows how many will survive this newest ordeal.

The second major concern is that in the last ten days of March, the US government has ramped up its system of “expedited removal” in an effort dispatch as many people to Mexico as quickly as possible. By the end of March, several hundred people were being deported to Tijuana 24 hours a day seven days a week. The United States seems to want to move as many migrants into Mexico as quickly as possible.  In the process, it may well be deporting COVID-19 into the streets of Tijuana. As of the first part of April, we had fewer 25 confirmed cases in Tijuana, but now I fear the numbers will increase rapidly.

However, my biggest preoccupation at this point is what will happen when more and more people lose their jobs, go hungry, and lack sufficient resources to survive. In a very short time, chaos could erupt in places like Tijuana. The spread of coronavirus could be taken to a whole new level and Tijuana could look like Caracas, Venezuela

For example, on April 2 one migrant arrived at the Casa at 9:30pm in tears because he had just been a victim of an assault. He was walking home from his job at a US call center when a car pulled in front of him.  With the wave of a pistol, its occupants ordered him enter. They drove him to a place where he was beaten and then robbed of everything, including his cell phone, all his documents and all his money 400 pesos (about $20 US dollars). He was in tears because this was the fourth time, he had been robbed in the last two weeks. I fear that this could become the new norm here in Tijuana.

Now is the time to act before real chaos happens in the streets of Tijuana, as well as in other border cities. Here is what needs to be done:

  • Mexico needs to take the coronavirus much more seriously and make plans for thousands of people to become ill. We cannot get by on wishful thinking that maybe the COVID-19 will not touch Tijuana; it is only a matter of time.
  • It is not just enough for the government to declare a national health emergency and tell residents to stay at home. People need to have a sense that their basic human needs will be met. Up to this point, the government has not offered this basic assurance.
  • Places like Tijuana need to set up immediately food distribution centers throughout the city to serve the poor. The city is filled with people who are just getting by and there is no doubt they will need a lot of help. The government needs to take care of its people. It is time to push the many wealthy people in Tijuana to be more generous.
  • The Government needs to start talking with people who have experience working with the poor (like Casa del Migrante) and organize a strategic plan that includes housing, food and medical attention for all those in need before it is too late. It is absurd that people must go to work and put their lives on the line to make $10 a day washing cars. The “stay at home” concept cannot work if there is no food at home
  • Finally, the Mexican government must convince the US government to stop deporting migrants from throughout the world over the border without health screenings. Mexico also needs to convince the United States to stop denying access to asylum to unprotected minors and others.

In the end, we need a lot of prayer.  From a spiritual point of view maybe God has given us the gift – with the need to stay at home – of another 40 days of Lenten retreat. So perhaps this time, we will get it right in terms of prayer, sacrifice and charity. I sincerely hope so.

April 8, 2020