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COVID-19 complicates ministry to asylum-seekers

The U.S. has halted asylum hearings, and migrants hoping for entry are in limbo

COVID-19 complicates ministry to asylum-seekers

A camp for asylum-seekers in Matamoros, Mexico (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Every Monday for the last several months, single mother Alma Ruth crossed the border between Brownsville, Texas, and Matamoros, Mexico. The town is infamous for its violent cartel turf wars: The U.S. State Department issued the highest travel advisory (last updated Dec. 17, 2019) to that area for “crime and kidnapping,” which includes armed robberies, murder, sexual assaults, and extortion.

Across the greenish streams of the Rio Grande running between Brownsville and Matamoros, a little park functions as an unofficial refugee camp, where about 2,300 asylum-seekers—mostly young families from Central America—have been living since last summer.

Alma Ruth sometimes hears them singing when she visits the camp. As soon as she walks in, children run to her with arms open wide. She lets them hug her, but wears a mask and gloves and keeps her distance from the adults. Many of the kids she sees look undernourished, with skinny necks and stick arms. One young Honduran family she’s been meeting consistently includes two boys, 5 years old and 3 years old. She found them wandering without shoes, so she traced their feet onto a piece of paper and bought pink sandals for them at Walmart. 

Alma Ruth is a single mother of two sons with special needs, but she tries to bring whatever she can each time she visits: underwear, vitamins, cooking oil, apples, orange juice, little doughnuts, even her sons’ leftover lunches.

She’s one of a few Americans still crossing the border to help the thousands of asylum-seekers stuck in Mexico, waiting for the United States to resume asylum hearings and open its borders. Many U.S. organizations and volunteer groups that the migrants once depended on for aid have had to scale back or suspend their operations due to the pandemic. At least five asylum-seekers in Matamoros have tested positive for the coronavirus in recent weeks.

Under the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy), the United States has turned more than 60,000 asylum-seekers back to Mexico to await court proceedings for their asylum cases. Many live in overcrowded shelters or in makeshift camps, which puts them at higher risk for contracting the virus. 

Asylum-seekers are also at high risk of facing violence in Mexican border towns: A Human Rights First report documented more than 800 asylum-seekers under MPP who have faced threats and violence such as kidnapping, torture, and murder. 

Since March, the Trump administration has postponed all immigration court hearings for asylum-seekers and ordered border agents to deport or expel all unauthorized migrants immediately without due process, even unaccompanied minors. In early June, a federal judge temporarily blocked the deportation of an underage Honduran boy who entered the United States alone the previous week. On June 11, the Trump administration proposed new rules that, if finalized, would redefine asylum law to exclude almost everyone seeking refuge in the United States by making it nearly impossible for asylum-seekers to argue their cases in court. 

The virus continues to spread in Mexico, with more than 46,000 deaths. At Matamoros, rows of multicolored tents and tarp shelters are scattered across the dirt. Mexican officials have erected a chain-link fence with barbed wire around the camp to prevent the people from leaving. Security guards stand outside the fence.

The pandemic has forced many regular volunteers to stop visiting the camp. Team Brownsville, a network of educators who before the coronavirus visited the camp daily to help serve hot meals and provide weekly classes for the migrant children, no longer physically interacts with any of the asylum-seekers. Now they load wagons with school supplies such as textbooks and backpacks, pulling the wagons across the border and leaving the supplies by a gate outside the camp. They also pay people in Mexico to help buy food and supplies and deliver them to the camp, which significantly increased their expenses, a volunteer told me. All their funds come from private donations.

Other Christians are also trying their best to serve long-distance: The Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit that provides sermons, devotional plans, and other resources on immigration, launched a campaign to fund hand-washing stations, PPE, and clean drinking water for migrants at the Southern border, particularly Matamoros. “People really want to help,” said founder Rondell Treviño. “It’s been so cool to see people step up despite financial struggles due to COVID-19. I think it’s such a testament of the Church.”

Despite all the risks and the new obstacles from the pandemic, Alma Ruth (WORLD is is not using her last name so officials won’t stop her from continuing her ministry) still crosses the border to Matamoros by herself every Monday. Now that the guards won’t let her enter the camp, she loiters elsewhere for a few hours until she sees the guards leaving, then slips in unnoticed.

Options for the migrants are limited: stay and risk their lives, or go back to the countries they’re fleeing.

Alma Ruth met one Honduran woman who was so worried about her 5-year-old son’s safety that she sent him across the bridge into the United States by himself while she tearfully followed him along the river until the boy faded from sight. She’s not the only one—many parents have decided to send their children alone across the border to save them from starvation, sickness, or crime. The Honduran woman’s husband lives in Houston, so she figured border officials would help reunite them. 

That was in late February—right as the Trump administration began implementing rapid expulsions of unauthorized migrants, including unaccompanied children. Before the pandemic, because of humanitarian reasons, border agents did not turn back unaccompanied minors. But now they invoke a federal law that allows immigration officials to turn back people who might pose a risk of spreading communicable diseases. Border agents process migrants on the field instead of at Border Patrol stations. The United Nations has condemned the rapid expulsion of asylum-seekers.

It wasn’t until the Honduran woman didn’t hear back from her son or her husband that she found out about the rapid expulsions and deportations. She doesn’t know what happened to her son. He might be somewhere in Mexico or Honduras. “This is happening because people are distracted,” Alma Ruth said. “Nobody is really paying attention.” 

It’s a tough balancing act for government leaders, who must consider the public health and safety of their citizens. The Trump administration implemented similar measures on the U.S.-Canada border as well, and the State Department advised U.S. citizens not to travel abroad. But immigration and human rights advocates argue that the government must still uphold its obligation under international and U.S. laws to accept asylum-seekers fleeing persecution, even during a pandemic. Taking into account the administration’s tough policies against immigrants and refugees, many immigration advocates suspect that Trump’s anti-immigration advisers have a different agenda in mind. 

“I think the administration has shown their complete disregard for the rights of asylum-seekers,” said Margaret Cargioli, a San Diego–based managing attorney at the Immigrant Defenders Law Center: “I think they will use the pandemic in as many ways as possible  to continue to infringe upon the rights of asylum-seekers and to tear down our immigration system.”

AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File

Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego (AP Photo/Elliot Spagat, File)

One of Cargioli’s clients is Sergio Lopez, a 33-year-old political activist from Nicaragua who fled after facing persecution due to his activism, leaving behind his wife and two children. When he requested asylum at the border, the U.S. government sent him back to Mexico under MPP, but he was able to score an interview with asylum officers to prove “credible fear” of remaining in Mexico after he said a gang there had kidnapped and tortured him. Immigration officials placed him in the Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. After he waited several months for a hearing, government officials postponed it because of the coronavirus.

Then in early April, one by one, detainees began to cough and writhe with fever and body aches. Lopez shared a cell, which guards kept uncomfortably cold, with about 100 other detainees. They all used the same bathroom. In a recorded audio interview released by Immigrant Defenders Law Center, Lopez said none of the officers were wearing masks or gloves. Some detainees went on a hunger strike, demanding medical attention or immediate release. Immigrant Defenders Law Center filed a petition in federal court asking for the release of four detainees. Two guards also filed separate lawsuits against the facility’s operator for allegedly failing to adequately protect the staff. By late July, at least 168 detainees tested positive for the virus. Among them was Lopez, who began aching, coughing, and feeling feverish on April 13. At least one 57-year-old detainee at Otay Mesa Detention Center has died with the virus. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has since granted Lopez parole, and he is currently staying with his relatives in the United States.

Back at Matamoros camp, migrants gather to sing hymns and pray together. Many asylum-seekers self-identify as evangelical. The camp has at least five asylum-seeking pastors who lead the outdoor services each evening, according to Alma Ruth. She prays for the migrants she meets: “I want to help heal their dignity, to help them see their worth, that they and I are equal before the eyes of our Lord.”

Sophia Lee

Sophia Lee

Sophia is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in Los Angeles. Follow Sophia on Twitter @SophiaLeeHyun.