An unlikely COVID-19 success story in Mexico

A refugee camp on the U.S.-Mexico border hasn't had a single COVID-19 death

There’s something pretty horrible happening along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s been happening for a long time. Most in the U.S. don’t know about it or it’s been swept out of their awareness by endless, mindless election coverage.

In early 2019, the U.S. and Mexico worked together to strand thousands of asylum seekers in an unprotected legal limbo. It’s called the Migrant Protection Protocols, or sometimes Remain in Mexico. 

Here’s how it works: if you are seeking asylum in the U.S. and show up at the U.S. border to request asylum, you will be sent back to Mexico. You’ll be given a court date and you are supposed to wait in Mexico for the duration of your asylum hearings in the U.S. For many, that has taken more than a year. You’re given nothing to survive during this time stranded in a foreign country. It’s happened to more than 66,000 people since January 2019. 

The program causes several problems for asylum seekers: a lack of access to legal services, deprivation from dignified housing, hygiene, and medical care, and becoming a target of Mexican organized crime. You can read more about the policy here and here.

This policy has created refugee camps on the U.S.-Mexico border for the first time in history. The largest and best known is a tent camp in Matamoros, Mexico next to the Rio Grande. I spent some time in this camp in late 2019. (Here are two videos I worked on while there.) It’s one of the starkest images of the American immigration system in 2020: a neglected refugee camp sitting on the banks of the Rio Grande with a panoramic view of Texas, framed by a steel border wall and razor wire. 

Despite offers of support from the United Nations, neither the Mexican or U.S. government has accepted, since that would require admitting they’ve created thousands of refugees with nowhere to go. That, of course, does not happen here.

So when COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, it seemed like an inevitable catastrophe for the Matamoros camp. As much as the camp’s residents tried, it felt impossible to maintain hygiene. The close quarters inside tents seemed like perfect vectors for the disease. The lack of support from the Mexican government augured badly for the prospect of people needing hospital care.

That has not happened. In fact, the Matamoros camp has been an overwhelming success in protecting against COVID-19. Not a single person in the camp – it’s size peaking at around 3,000 but falling below 1,000 during the pandemic – has died of COVID-19. (The numbers being sent back to Mexico under MPP have fallen this year during the pandemic because almost everyone, even asylum seekers and unaccompanied children, that tries to enter the U.S. is rapidly expelled from the country without due process.)

The first coronavirus case didn’t hit the camp until late June. So far, about 50 residents at the camp have tested positive and only one became critical and later recovered. In the surrounding city of Matamoros, more than 5,700 people have tested positive for COVID-19 and 462 have died.

How has the refugee camp has fared so well?

The first explanation is pretty simple: the residents of the camp spend most their time outside in hot, humid weather, bad conditions for the coronavirus. Residents of the camp rarely wander far beyond it, mostly because they’ve been targeted by organized crime. The average age in the camp is fairly low – not many older people could survive the journey most took to get there. 

The next explanation is community and solidarity. The camp has been home to people from many countries (most from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Cuba but others from Haiti, South America and different African countries) who all have the same objective: find safety in the United States. They’ve all been marginalized and discarded in the same ways. This created solidarity. And how do you beat COVID-19? You get people to care about other people’s health as much as their own. Avoid close contact. Wear masks. Wash your hands. Before COVID-19 hit, the camp’s residents had formed a community that was concerned with the wellbeing of everyone. They could translate this to COVID-19 precautions. Residents of the camp have regularly chosen a representative from each country to lobby for the interests of everyone. These representatives can then relay health and safety measures back to people who trust them.

This stands in stark contrast to communities all over the U.S. (and in many other countries) where people have blatant disregard for the health of their neighbors and a lack of trust in the authorities meant to support them. 

Another explanation: a fleet of volunteers from the U.S. and Mexico. This starts with Global Response Management, an NGO that provides emergency medical care to people living in or forced to flee from conflict zones. They’ve provided free medical care, including coronavirus screening, to anyone in the camp since September 2019. In April 2020, GRM opened a 20-bed field hospital, including a portable ventilator in the case of a critical COVID-19 patient. They created an isolation zone where people with COVID-19 symptoms can live without exposing others. When residents became wary of the isolation zone, they asked people with COVID-19 symptoms to self-isolate in their tents.

GRM has developed a relationship of care and trust with the camp. When they asked residents to follow certain precautions, they listened. When residents needed medical support, GRM provided it. It sounds simple but it says a lot when compared to communities in the U.S., who have no connection with their local health services because they are mostly privatized, which means they’re intimidating and scary because of they can destroy you financially. There’s no chance at community trust in such a health system.

But GRM isn’t alone. Groups like Team Brownsville, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, The Resource Center for Asylum Seekers in Mexico and others have consistently provided supplies to the camp for more than a year. This means PPE to protect against COVID-19 but also food, drinking water, tents, toiletries, school supplies, toys and games.

MPP was designed to deter people from seeking asylum in the U.S., to make their lives so unimaginably miserable that they will turn around and go back to the place they fled. It’s worked. Many have gone back or have tried to resettle in Mexico or another country. But thousands of people still have a shot at asylum in the U.S. – a tiny share have already won it – because of their collective support and outside help from NGOs.

Don’t take this success story the wrong way: there’s nothing idyllic about the Matamoros camp. Conditions are still awful, resources are scarce, and the future is entirely uncertain. A July hurricane nearly destroyed the camp and, during the late summer, it was swarmed by mosquitos, rats, and poisonous snakes. Immigration courts shut down because of COVID-19, meaning many of these asylum seekers have been living in the camp for more than a year and still have no court date. Despair and desperation sets in. In August, several pregnant women, desperate after months in the camp, tried to wade across the Rio Grande. Edwin Rodrigo, a 20-year-old Guatemalan known as one of the leaders of the camp, heard them struggling and jumped in to help. Rodrigo couldn’t swim and was later found floating in the river dead. 

The existence of the camp is despicable, criminal. U.S. authorities, like head of Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan, say “MPP has absolutely been successful.” Mexican authorities just act like it doesn’t exist – not a single high-level official in president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government has visited the Matamoros refugee camp. 

But it draws a stark contrast between migrants and the people telling us we should fear them, discard them. One, surviving on almost nothing, banded together for the health of everyone. The other, with uncountable riches, have been utter failures, depraved frauds.