Migrants still being blocked by ‘really dangerous’ Trump-era Covid policy

Feet away from a landfill and the largest migrant shelter in Reynosa, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, sits a woeful campsite thatched from blankets, tarps and tree trunks.

Inside, a family of four wait in the heat and danger of the border city, right across the river from Texas, for their chance to enter the US legally and claim asylum under international law.

But in their way is a pandemic-induced US policy, which many find outdated and charge is doing more harm than good.

On the dirt floor covered by donated blankets, a two-year-old girl slept by the side of the undeveloped road with her mother, sister and father on a sweltering Sunday morning in late August.

Blisters covered her lips, face and legs. Her seven-year-old sister had them on her chest and face, too, after a month sleeping rough in Reynosa.

“For me, as an adult, I can stand this, but not the kids. I don’t want this for them,” Sonel, the girl’s 35-year-old father, who fled the crisis-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, said. His last name is being withheld to protect the family.

Sonel, his 29-year-old wife, Wisline, seven-year-old daughter Bichoudna, and two-year-old Danayka, most recently fled Chile, where they had taken refuge and where the children were born, but had recently found themselves in fresh peril.

“I would work at night and they’d come and threaten my wife,” Sonel recalled. “That’s why I was afraid for my family. I want a better life for my daughters. That’s why I’m here.”

But the emergency migrant shelters in Reynosa were full and those waiting for space are placed on a waitlist.

The family joins about 55,500 people, according to a recent estimate by the Strauss Center, dotted along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border, waiting as they hope for the removal of a public health policy, known as Title 42, that has been barring most migrants from requesting asylum at ports of entry into the US for more than two years.

The policy was put in place by the Trump administration at the start of the pandemic ostensibly to help stop the spread of Covid-19, but despite vaccine development, a drop in cases and deaths, and the reopening of international commerce and travel, it has been used more than 3.2m times by US officials to summarily turn back migrants.

And it’s still in operation at least half the time migrants are encountered by border agents.

Migrants prepare meals at a shelter in Reynosa, Mexico. An estimated 6,000 migrants, with a Haitian majority, are waiting for the chance to cross into the US. Photograph: Michael Nigro/Getty Images

The Biden administration attempted to stop enforcement of the policy in late May after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it would no longer recommend its use, but a federal judge granted a restraining order against the wind-down of Title 42. It’s been tied up in litigation since.

Some experts assert that at best the policy has no medical underpinnings and has outlived its purpose, which was controversial from the start.

“We feel like we’re in a better place [with Covid],” said Jyothi Marbin, a northern California Bay Area doctor volunteering with Sidewalk School’s Kaleo International shelter in Reynosa, a partnership between an educational non-profit and a church.

She added: “We’re learning to live with the pandemic in the United States. It seems unreasonable to me that Title 42 is still being enforced when the public health agencies and many doctors are saying that it just doesn’t seem to make sense to use that as a reason” for excluding and expelling people.

And at worst the policy actually spreads coronavirus and multiplies a plethora of other risks.

“Title 42 is really dangerous … It’s tragic, it’s so detached from reality and the effort is a rhetorical handwaving which has no benefits to our own US population and inflicts harm on those already-vulnerable migrants,” said Ed Kissam, who has led government-sponsored research on farmworker and immigrant issues and Covid strategy for disadvantaged populations.

He added that the policy had always been more about “racial and ethnic prejudice” in the US than science, and was “just ridiculous” as a public health measure.

Kissam wrote in an opinion article for the Arizona Republic last month that
“continuing Title 42 exacerbates Sars-CoV-2 [coronavirus] transmission by disrupting orderly processing of asylum-seekers and concentrating migrants in squalid camps, holding cells and crowded detention facilities.”

He suggested remedies, while concluding that Trump’s motive was “political subterfuge”. And he said that 24 anti-immigrant states now demanding in court that the authorities continue to use the rule to block people “clearly stated their objective was actually just to decrease immigration”.

Last month, the Physicians for Human Rights advocacy group filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that Title 42 causes more harm than good, beyond Covid.

“Health care workers have not only corroborated the high levels of violence against migrants in northern Mexico, they have reported that asylum-seekers expelled from the US have been forced to live in increasingly unsafe and unsanitary conditions,” it read. “This includes observing increasing dehydration, malnutrition and infectious diseases associated with overcrowding.”

Doctors who donate their time to provide border medical care, either through video visits or in person, often see diseases prompted by crowded, hot and unclean living spaces, lack of access to food and clean water, on top of perilous journeys beforehand.

Julianna Morris, a doctor who has spent time in Tamaulipas, often diagnosed headaches, dehydration, upper respiratory infections and gastrointestinal illnesses such as diarrhea, fever and rashes.

Morris recalled advising that a girl’s rash would heal faster out of the sun. “Her father is laughing at us, [saying], ‘We’re outside all day long’,” she said. “We gave her a hat.”

She also treated a man who was hurt after the vehicle he traveled in tipped over in Mexico.

Left untreated, serious medical conditions claim lives, like an HIV-positive man who died without his pills, Kate Sugarman, a family doctor, said.

Sugarman works in Washington DC, but volunteered with a medical team formed by Charlene D’Cruz, an immigration attorney in south Texas, who has organized a “ragtag” group from all backgrounds, including pediatrics, emergency medicine, OBGYN and neurology, to write medical affidavits that can help migrants get across the border under exemptions to Title 42.

The emergency migrant shelters in Reynosa are full, so migrants set up camp outside, with little shelter from sun or rain.
The emergency migrant shelters in Reynosa are full, so migrants set up camp outside, with little shelter from sun or rain. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

“We literally had somebody with a tumor who crossed into Texas,” Sugarman said. “The doctor [there] said, ‘Yep. You have a cancerous tumor,’ and tossed him right back into Mexico. It’s wrong.”

D’Cruz speaks to border officials and told the Guardian of a dehydrated, pregnant woman and her family who were turned away at the border on suspicion of head lice.

She struggled back into Mexico, D’Cruz recounted, and consulted a hairdresser who said she didn’t have lice. Nevertheless, the mother-to-be and her relatives shaved their heads and walked back to the US-Mexico bridge, where they were finally processed successfully.

Meanwhile, the advocacy group Human Rights First recorded nearly 10,000 violent borderland attacks against adults and children expelled under Title 42, according to a report in March.

Dona Murphey, a neurologist based in Houston, remembers a case of a disabled child with epilepsy living in an encampment with his mother after being ejected. When they were moved to a shelter, the boy was sexually assaulted there.

He “stopped eating, was exhibiting depressive symptoms, was crying all the time and not engaging any more,” Murphey said, which in addition made him more at risk of a fatal seizure.

Border states like Tamaulipas are often on the US state department’s “do not travel” list for Americans due to kidnappings, carjackings and homicide.

Migrants face threats from cartels running human and drug smuggling, who will abduct migrants until their families pay ransom.

‘We had children who could no longer eat. People couldn’t sleep. They were so terrified of being kidnapped,’ one doctor said.
‘We had children who could no longer eat. People couldn’t sleep. They were so terrified of being kidnapped,’ one doctor said. Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

“We had children who could no longer eat. People couldn’t sleep. They were so terrified of being kidnapped – again or for the first time,” Sugarman said.

Human Rights First interviewed a Salvadoran family who were kidnapped in Reynosa and their two little girls threatened that they would be killed and sold for their organs if the family didn’t come up with a ransom. After entering the US in Texas, the authorities shipped them to California and used Title 42 to expel them back into Mexico.

“They’ve told us how dangerous these streets are,” Sonel, the Haitian father, said. “I’m always watching out to make sure my family isn’t kidnapped. But bad things are always happening.”

By the start of September, the family was moved to a shelter in Reynosa. That same day, a dispute broke out in the shelter and a man was stabbed, a volunteer who asked not to be named said.

Every day, about 60 people get processed into the US through the port of entry that links Reynosa with Hidalgo, Texas, a trickle of those exempted from the Title 42 expulsions.

Sonel is willing to wait for his chance to move his family legally into the US. He looked down at his sick children, as his wife tried to comfort them.

“If I die [here],” he said matter-of-factly, “then at least I’d know that they’d be safe in the US.”

Joanna Walters contributed reporting

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