Crossing Closing Borders

The U.S. government told me and other Fulbright scholars to decide whether to stay or return home. Most migrants don’t have those options.

A vendor selling snacks to motorists lined up to cross into the United States on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border next to A United Airlines plane.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mario Tama/Getty Images and Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images.

Last week, I was at a mall Starbucks in Ciudad del Carmen, Campeche, Mexico, the place that’s been my home for the past six and a half months as I’ve worked as an English teaching assistant through the Fulbright Program. I was scrolling through my COVID-19-saturated newsfeeds from a place that still felt very far away from the pandemic.

But then I received a memo from the U.S. State Department that changed all that. Due to the global spread of COVID-19, the State Department was “strongly advis[ing] all current U.S. Fulbright participants to make arrangements to depart their country of assignment as soon as possible,” the memo said. And while we weren’t being forced to leave, if we chose to stay, there was “no guarantee” we’d get help leaving our countries later on. (On Monday, Peace Corps similarly announced it was evacuating all its volunteers.)

On the date I received the memo, there were 26 cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Mexico, but things felt normal. Families filled the mall; students filled the university. People were still greeting each other with a kiss on the cheek and talking about other things on the radio. In contrast, my Twitter feed showed photo after photo of empty grocery aisles in the States.

Judging by the case numbers alone, Mexico was safer than the U.S. at the moment I received the State Department memo. Students and co-workers told me I was much less likely to get the virus in Carmen than back home, and I agreed. Why would I leave Mexico, they asked me, only to go through four airports and on three airplanes in order to arrive to a country that was worse off? (The phrase they used was more colorful than “worse off,” but I’m summarizing.)

That was the logical component of the case for staying, but there was an emotional one, too: To go would be to leave behind the life I had built in Carmen, to leave without saying goodbye to most of my students and co-workers, to leave behind two projects I had spent months on, to leave behind my long-term boyfriend. (We were living in the same country for the first time in two years, even if we were an 18-hour bus ride apart.)

But the future was uncertain. If the U.S. health care system has been woefully unprepared for COVID-19, I worry that the Mexican health care system is even less so, particularly for vulnerable populations and people who live far away from hospitals, clinics and doctors (much less ventilators), with either nonexistent or famously unreliable medical transport. What’s more, the OECD and ILO estimate about 60 percent of Mexican workers participate in the informal economy, so working from home and social distancing aren’t options (or are much trickier options) for a large portion of the population. The day after I received the State Department memo, the Secretary of Public Education suspended classes from March 20 through April 20 (classes were already suspended the first two full weeks of April for the Semana Santa holiday), during which time people were being asked to stay in their homes. Meanwhile, my family was far away, and they were anxious.

This difficult decision was possible because I had a choice. I had the fundamental privilege to be able to cross borders easily, to move freely between worlds built to welcome me, to move because I choose to. This choice—to stay or go, to pick a country—is a choice I am used to, one that’s been a defining feature of my life.

The first time I crossed the border from my home of Arizona into Mexico I was a few months old. My family spent time in Sonora frequently throughout my childhood, back when the southern border of the U.S. was more a point of connection than division, and crossing it was normal, easy, routine, celebrated. My junior year of college, I returned to Mexico, this time to Mexico City, where I studied for a semester. It was then that I first felt connected to the country, thanks to the people who welcomed me there and taught me something new every day—about the country’s culture, history, and complex relationship to the U.S. For the rest of my time in college, my goal was to return to Mexico as a Fulbright scholar. Upon achieving it, I was ecstatic.

Of course, it’s much easier to love a country when you get to experience all its best parts without having to fight through some of its challenges. Throughout my time in Mexico, I woke up each morning in a bubble. I read headlines about femicide, people deported to violence, the rising sea level around my island home, and the fall of the peso (which has hit a “new historic low” due to the coronavirus). And then I went about my day remembering that when the 2017 earthquake hit Mexico City, I was given the option to return to the U.S. (that time, I opted to stay). I knew if anything truly bad happened during my time as a Fulbright scholar, I would be given the same option.

And, indeed, in the face of COVID-19, I was—I could choose to be exfiltrated from any uncertainty (or at least greater uncertainty), to continue toggling selectively between two countries as my heart desires.

During my time in Mexico, I had been thinking a lot about a simple truth: I was a migrant, and yet my personal experience with migration has only ever been one of arriving to a welcome doormat. Many migrants currently living in Mexico, especially those trying to arrive to the U.S., the very country I so easily left, face an entirely different experience. I can move easily between two countries and two cultures because of the money in my bank account, my two university degrees, and the color of my skin and my passport.

I could write pages about how I decided to go home because I didn’t want to weigh down a health system that is not my own, because my family needed me, or because I was worried about my ability to self-quarantine and social-distance in my university-owned housing. But ultimately, I decided to go home because it was the most comfortable thing for me to do.

In the days after I received the State Department memo, things began to feel less normal in Mexico. Streets are emptier, and so are grocery store shelves. Fear has become a common unifier—on Monday, Facebook filled with panic about the first suspicious COVID-19 case in Ciudad del Carmen. (Ultimately, the test came back negative.)

Meanwhile, I’ve been thinking about the migrants throughout Mexico, many of them in makeshift camps or overfilled shelters, particularly vulnerable to the virus and without the ability to decide much at all. I hope with all my heart that governments act quickly to protect those groups of people, but past actions don’t inspire much confidence. (On Wednesday, Trump confirmed plans to immediately remove asylum seekers and other migrants who cross between ports of entry on the U.S.-Mexico border without due process.) I think about the resources the U.S. government is spending to evacuate volunteers or fellows like me, and how many more lives could likely be saved if those resources were directed elsewhere.

But here I am, sitting on a plane, with a small bottle of hydrogen peroxide and some towels I’m trying to use to wipe things off (desperate times, y’all), with my bottle of prescription anxiety pills in my backpack, and with the guilt and the fear that I’ve failed in my duties as a teacher. I worry that I didn’t tell my students I was proud of them enough. I worry about abandoning the city that showed me such support. I worry about whether by leaving, by traveling, I’ll do more harm than good. I worry about leaving Mexico, the country that has loved me so well, and what it will look like the next time I’m able to come back.

I know that someday, I’ll be able to make the choice, once again, to cross the border back into Mexico, to move because I choose to. But I worry that privilege will become even more rare.

Disclaimer: The views and information presented in this column are my own and do not represent those of the U.S. Department of State, the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, or COMEXUS Fulbright-García Robles.

Update, March 20, 2020: The State Department has officially suspended the Fulbright Program and urged all U.S. participants to return home.

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