Late last month, a group of migrants in an immigration detention center in the Mexican town of Tenosique lit mattresses on fire to protest conditions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic: overcrowding, the inability to carry out preventive measures like social distancing and sanitation, a lack of medical services and information, and potentially indefinite periods of confinement. One person, a migrant from Guatemala, died as a result of smoke inhalation, and 14 others were injured.
The demonstration followed similar protests at other immigrant detention centers in the country, all responding to a lack of regular medical attention and other basic services. As Doctors Without Borders noted in a recent press release, immigration detention centers like the one in Tenosique are “breeding grounds for the spread of disease outbreaks, COVID-19 among them.” In response, shelters, universities, and other organizations in Mexico and elsewhere in the world have demanded that the Mexican government release migrants from detention centers and assist with their voluntary return to their countries of origin, should they desire (a process complicated by border closures). Similar demands are also being made in the U.S., where advocates are calling for the government to “shut down immigration prisons” in order to save human lives and protect public health.
Still, detention centers aren’t the only places migrants face an elevated risk amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Report after report has detailed the threat the pandemic poses for migrants, particularly those in makeshift border camps. This is complicated by shelters’ lack of capacity, particularly in the face of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy and rapid removal of migrants (including asylum-seekers) who cross into the U.S. between ports of entry.
This dynamic is playing out not only in Mexico and the U.S. but throughout the world. In an article published April 6, the World Economic Forum noted the pandemic is “on track to exacerbate the vulnerabilities of some of the 272 million international migrants worldwide.” Specifically, the WEF highlighted the impact of government policies such as border crossing restrictions, the suspension of resettlement travels, and the slowing of migration processing and assistance programs. Those problems are exacerbated by social conditions such as the widespread presence of distrust and misinformation, a lack of access to health care and resources for preventive measures, and the overcrowding of unsafe living spaces.
Given all this, migrant shelters face a difficult dilemma: Do they stay open and continue providing services to the people who need them now more than ever? Or do they close their doors in an effort to protect the people they already have inside?
I spoke with officials from three migrant shelters—one each in north, central, and southern Mexico—about how they’ve responded to the pandemic and their concerns for the future. (Some of the conversations have been translated from Spanish to English. Because each shelter faces a dynamic situation, it’s possible some population numbers have changed since our conversations.)
La 72, a migrant shelter in southeast Mexico, near the border with Guatemala, has received nearly 75,000 migrants over its nine-year history. The shelter’s recent and difficult decision to go into quarantine was a first for Ramón Márquez, the director of La 72, and his team. The quarantine means that residents who have decided to stay in the shelter can only leave and reenter under extreme circumstances, like in the case of a medical need or an immigration process.
But the shelter is still opening its doors to new residents, with conditions. “We decided there needed to be a specific space for isolation … for people who continued arriving from the migration route and who wanted to stay in La 72,” Márquez said. The shelter has equipped five separate spaces to isolate new residents for a period of two weeks, as well as anyone who presents symptoms of COVID-19.
The shelter, which currently houses about 120 people, is also reinforcing procedures for health screenings, connecting people to appropriate physical and mental health care, ensuring access to preventive resources, coordinating health talks and workshops, increasing sanitation of common spaces, and making sure people have access to information. (La 72 collaborates with Doctors Without Borders to provide health care access.)
“We’re trying to manage this more from awareness than fear,” said Márquez.
Because of the pandemic, the shelter lost six or seven short-term volunteers, who had to return home. Only two new volunteers have arrived, though they’re both currently in isolation. Typically, the shelter has a minimum of at least 10 volunteers, plus a base staff of seven. The staff has divided into three teams, each working 24-hour shifts. Between shifts, staff members can leave the shelter to go home—and often must leave the shelter to do things like buy new supplies—but they try to limit their movements as much as possible and follow sanitation guidelines upon reentry.
The pandemic has also significantly reduced the number of new migrants La 72 is seeing. “This time of year, we’d [normally]be receiving an average of 50 to 70 people per day, and in the last few weeks we’ve practically received no one,” Márquez said. So for now, his main concern is for the migrants in detention centers around the country, whose precarious situation was recently demonstrated by the detention center fire in Tenosique.
For people sitting at home wanting to help, Márquez recommends focusing on “what’s happening in our own communities”—recognizing that migration is an interconnected chain and that the local (for example, how much money someone can earn to send back to their community) cascades into the global.
When the Casa de Acogida, Formación y Empoderamiento de la Mujer Migrante y Refugiada, a migrant shelter in Mexico City, decided to enter into a quarantine in late March, there were “76 people housed in the shelter, among them newborns, children under 5, and some older people with medical conditions,” said Omar Ortega, CAFEMIN’s coordinator of local integration and institutional partnerships. “Those people were the minority, but they’re the ones at greatest risk.”
The shelter’s decision to close its doors was motivated by the desire to protect the vulnerable people in its population. But it meant that residents with jobs outside the shelter (think things like food service, private security, cleaning, or administrative work, positions where “if you’re there, they pay you, and if you’re not there, they don’t”) had to stop working.
Now, the only people who can come and go are the 10 staff members and five nuns. Where possible, in order to limit exposure, they’ve divided shifts so that a staff member stays in the shelter for an entire week before switching with someone else. (Some team members, because of personal risk, have stopped coming to the shelter at all. Others, because of family obligations, are coming to the shelter only a couple days a week.) On any given day, Ortega said, there are about five people working, with two of them being those on the weeklong shift.
Since entering into quarantine, the shelter’s population has dwindled down to about 55 people, Ortega said. Some people have left as part of migration processes (one family was relocated to Canada, for example), and CAFEMIN helped some residents find housing outside the shelter so they could continue to work.
The shelter has done the best it can to keep residents informed and engaged, but the situation is fragile. “We try to avoid this sort of mass panic among the people in the shelter, because that could be a time bomb,” Ortega said. “Our greatest ally in that is that [residents], in communication with their immediate networks, have seen the realities in other places.” Talking with people in their home countries or places like the U.S., Ortega said, residents have witnessed firsthand the gravity of the pandemic and the actions being taken elsewhere to contain it.
For Ortega, one big concern is the situation of migrants left outside closed shelters, who may now be forced to live on the street—a problem that existed even before the pandemic.
The Casa del Migrante shelter in Tijuana decided in mid-March to cut its original maximum capacity of 160 residents to 80, and then, following national restrictions on gathering sizes, to 50. (Currently, the shelter has just under 50 residents.) To limit exposure, said the Rev. Pat Murphy, the shelter’s director, existing residents have to remain inside. The only exception to this rule is for the 17 residents currently working, who are allowed to leave the shelter for their jobs (with stricter sanitation measures upon reentry).
In the past few weeks, the shelter has also hired a doctor, who works for four or five hours a day, five days a week. The doctor cares for current residents and gives preventive health talks, and is also in charge of examining any new people who come to the shelter’s door, determining whether it’s safe to admit them. But when we talked, Murphy told me few new people have come seeking admission to the shelter thus far—just two or three in the previous 10 days.
The shelter has 22 staff members, 16 of whom are working at home. The other six—whose jobs, like laundry and purchasing supplies, can’t be done from home—are working reduced hours. (Five full-time volunteers have also continued to work with Murphy from the shelter.)
“I just can’t keep everybody at home. Somebody has to be here to work with the people,” said Murphy, who has been trying to limit his contact in the complex’s common areas, because he—68 years old and with diabetes—is particularly vulnerable to the virus.
What keeps Murphy up at night is a simple question: “What happens when it really hits, and people can’t work, and people stay at home, and then people are hungry?” he asks.
Violence against migrants is already common. Murphy worries it could get even worse. A little over a week ago, one of the shelter’s residents was forced into a car at gunpoint while walking home from work, robbed of his cellphone, his documents, his jacket, and the about $30 in his possession. “They were even going to take his shoes, but he convinced them not to,” Murphy said. “And then they beat him up. So I’m afraid this will become the new norm.”
We’re in a moment of crisis, and for many migrants and the organizations that serve them, concerns are immediate. But those concerns stem from larger, more systematic problems—problems with the way we treat certain migrants and the existing conditions that transform migration, for many, from what should be a choice to what becomes a last resort.
I keep going back to a worry Ortega shared with me: the idea that, once we get through the pandemic, there will be no meaningful change in governments’ policies toward migrant populations. If that happens, the burden to provide access to basic services like health care and housing will continue to fall on organizations like his.
“I think that if when this is over, we return to the same, particularly talking about mobility, migration, refugees, if no action is taken that has a subsequent effect, then it will have been for nothing,” he said. “It will be like ‘Yes, an emergency,’ ‘yes, it’s over now,’ ‘yes, how awful’—but nothing else. That would worry me a lot.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.