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1A Across America: Coronavirus At The Border

Children play at a refugee camp on the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico in July 2020.
Children play at a refugee camp on the U.S. border in Matamoros, Mexico in July 2020.

There are now at least 25,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 across the the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, which is home to more than a million people on the U.S. side of the border. More than 90 percent of the people living in the valley are Latino. 

For the first few months of the pandemic, the area fared well for a virus that disproportionately impacts Latinos. That changed when Texas began reopening the economy in May, according toDr. Ivan Melendez, Health Authority for Hidalgo County, Texas, which shares a border with Mexico. 

“Our deaths went from 12 in three months. Yesterday, I think we had 35. deaths Today, I’ve had three people die. It’s 10 in the morning,” says Melendez.

Following the reopening, nearly one in five people in Hidalgo County test positive for the virus. Melendez has also tested positive.  

Cases are exceeding a thousand day, with dozens of deaths each day. The county executive has issued new stay–at–home orders, but Texas Governor Greg Abbott says only the state has the authority to enforce these orders.   

“Because we lost our local county jurisdiction, we really don’t have the authority to enforce that. In fact, the governor’s office stated this morning that it was allowing us to put out this order because it didn’t have any enforceable provisions,” Melendez says.   

The state is sending 1,000 nurses to help underfunded hospitals. The Army and Navy have also deployed teams to help.   

Melendez says that’s still not enough. If you look at health statistics for this region it’s clear why it’s become a hotspot. It regularly has some of the highest rates of diabetes and obesity every year. And it has one of the nation’s lowest per-capita incomes.  

“So, we’re an obese, diabetic, poor population. 40 percent of our population is uninsured or underinsured. 40 percent,” Melendez repeats.   

The border with Mexico has been closed to non-essential travel since March to prevent spread of the virus. Melendez suspects, however, that most of the spread is happening between family members in the U.S.  

“I think our community exposure is coming from the parties that people continue to have,” Melendez says. “We’ve had our share of corona parties. And we’ve also had —because of our culture— a lot of quinceañeras and pachangas. A lot of get-togethers at people’s homes.”  

Now, this region is being hit with a coronavirus outbreak and the economic pain of the border being closed. Businesses in the Rio Grande Valley rely on people traveling between the U.S. and Mexico every day.  

“We’ve been around for 80 years and we’ve managed to go through tough times before,” says Jesus Martinez, owner of El Pastor Grille in McAllen, Texas. “What we’re seeing with the virus today is affecting our business a lot.”  

His family owns three restaurants in Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border, and one in McAllen. His grandfather opened the first one in Reynosa in the 1940’s.  

They all closed when the lockdown orders began in March. They’ve slowly been able to reopen only to be impacted by the restrictions on Mexican citizens crossing the border.  

“People that used to spend money on the mall and businesses and small businesses and restaurants aren’t crossing anymore. Businesses are getting hurt on both sides of the border. Not just in the U.S. but also in Mexico,” Martinez says.    

Besides business, new federal policies on border crossings are also hurting people seeking asylum in the U.S. At the start of the year, the Trump Administration implemented the Migrant Protection Protocol. Under this policy, asylum seekers no longer wait in the U.S. for a court date. They wait in Mexico.  

Last summer Sister Norma Pimentel’s respite center in McAllen literally helped migrants by the busload. She would provide food, shelter and other resources for up to 2,000 people a day who arrived by bus after being released from Customs and Border Protection detention.  

Now, the amount of people she helps in a day can fit inside a minivan. “Today, we had a little bit more than 6,” Pimentel says. “Usually, we don’t receive that many. It just so happened they were from Cuba. So maybe that might be a reason.”  

Sister Norma spends most of her time now on the Mexican side of the border since that’s where all the migrants and asylum seekers are stuck. The U.S. has basically stopped the asylum process, but people are still showing up at the border.  

“The need for asylum and refuge don’t stop just because there’s a pandemic,” says Helen Perry of Global Response Management. She runs hospital services at a refugee camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just a few miles from the border.  

Upwards of 2,000 people live in the camp, according to Perry, with families showing up every day. There’s no capacity for more families so new arrivals are turned away. It’s unclear where they go.  

“When going home means death, that’s not really an option. Right?” Perry says.   

A refugee camp is not an ideal place to be during a pandemic. Social distancing is nearly impossible with tents separated by mere inches. Bathrooms and kitchens are communal. Despite the crowded communal conditions, however, Perry and her team kept coronavirus out of the camp until late last month. Now, the virus is spreading rapidly.  

“It’s desperate. I mean, it’s desperate. It’s incredibly desperate,” Perry says.   

Despite the pandemic, Perry believes the U.S. can continue asylum and protect public health. She says border health screenings and quarantines are just two possible options. She says current restrictions are a “convenient excuse” to keep people out of the U.S.  

“COVID should not be the nail in the coffin that ends our asylum programs,” Perry says.  

1A Across America is funded through a grant from The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. CPB is a private, nonprofit corporation created by Congress in 1967 that is the steward of the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting.


Copyright 2020 WAMU 88.5

James Morrison