La Línea: Essays on The Humanitarian Crisis on the Border

Wall in US Mexico boarder

“How do we live our daily lives, how do we pour the coffee, how do we open the car door, how do we touch our lovers, while people are dying around us?” Sasha Pimentel (2017)

Essay April 9, 2020

Pandemia en La Línea: COVID-19 in the U.S.-México Border Camps 

Bridget Algee-Hewitt & Casey Miller

The encampments along the northern border of México are suffocating: there is no mechanism, infrastructural or medical, to sustain those grasping for breaths of freedom and physical air.

collage of immigrant tents, art work, and the covid cell
As waves of pandemic responses roll over the landscape, our global community fissions and segregates, scaling down into micro units of countries, states, cities, families, and, for those infected, units of one. We shelter-in-place, as we self-isolate and quarantine. Yet, this is not our first experience with social-distancing. It always existed within our immigration “control through deterrence” strategies: from Operation Gatekeeper to the recent Migrant Protection Protocols. These Border policies, new and old, actively marginalize, exclude and confine Latin American migrants.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only tightened the tourniquet that restricts movement of these refugees, intensifying the immobility imposed upon asylum seekers by the Remain in México policy, stripping away at the agency of those who have already suffered incredible loss. In restricting the flow of the people, the lifeblood, that courses through the roadways joining the U.S. to México, we lose more than we preserve as we break community among the residents of the border towns – separating parents from children, the elderly from the young, caregivers from the needy – and subjecting those awaiting asylum – the forcibly displaced seeking only safety, security, the promise of a future – to disease, suffering and death. The encampments along the northern border of México are suffocating: there is no mechanism, infrastructural or medical, to sustain those grasping for breaths of freedom and physical air.
As advocates concerned with social justice, we seek to combat the virulence of racial inequalities that spread, infect and devastate already at-risk communities. In this time of pandemic, we are now uniquely charged with exposing the consequences of this new history of isolation as the current administration works to control “massive flows” of Latin American migrants, diffusing “a perfect storm that would spread the infection to our border.” We must ask what it means to distance and shelter along the US-México border, in the encampments, when there is no space and there is no sanctuary. Social isolation is not possible because of the communal living in the border camps. There are no physical places to quarantine. Life circumstances also prevent strategies of containment and isolation: in the presence of this new crisis, already fearful and traumatized migrants require internal support and, so, families will stay together. 
Efforts are being made by aid workers and their organizations to encourage containment and prevention of the virus through community talks and hand washing demonstrations. The goal is to educate the sick and those who live in their proximity, asking the infected or at-risk to voluntarily isolate themselves. 
There is also work on system fortification with supplements to boost immunity among those who are already physically compromised. COVID-19 in the camps is being combatted without testing by using a symptomatic diagnosis and ruling out influenza. 
Global Response Management runs a clinic in the Matamoros encampment and is in the process of building a field hospital with 20 beds in anticipation of the virus spreading in the encampment. There are about 2500 migrants in the encampment and, as of last week, there was one critical case and four suspected cases of COVID-19 in the encampment. No deaths have been reported yet.
The health status of these refugees reflects not only the extreme trauma of migration, but also the psycho-physical consequences of enduring months of exhaustion and malnutrition, dangerous and degrading living conditions and the stress of an uncertain future at the encampments. If the camp migrants survive this pandemic, it will be by the same resilience that carried them through their journey north, as mothers, children, brothers and fathers who fled violence, poverty and systems of persecution in their home countries to seek the promise of shelter in United States.  
We have too long accepted our disengagement from the border crisis – we have a responsibility to acknowledge our collective role as a passive agent in the policies that have marginalized, disenfranchised and persecuted Latin American migrants for decades. 
This isolation has just been more widely exposed with the threat of contraction: the pandemic of COVID-19 only intensifies the pandemic of human rights violations that has permeated Latinx refugee communities and continues to control the fate of the asylum seekers who are caught between two governments in Mexican border cities.
The weight of breathing under such accountability can seem paralyzing but we can work together to overcome this pandemic. We can heal the Border with our voices, disseminating word of the situation in the camps, and we can affect immediate change in the health of those who are sick by supporting the work of the frontline aid organizations, like Global Response Management.   
For more information on how you can support medical care and humanitarian relief efforts, visit: