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Tragic Confirmation of First COVID-19 Case at Matamoros Migrant Encampment Is “No Surprise,” Demands Urgent Action: PHR

The first case of COVID-19 was confirmed at the Matamoros migrant encampment along the Mexico-U.S. border, where more than 2,000 asylum seekers wait for U.S. immigration court hearings while stuck in squalid conditions.

The following statement is attributable to Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at PHR and professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan:

“The tragic confirmation of the first positive COVID-19 case at the Matamoros encampment should come as no surprise. For months, public health experts have sounded the alarm that people in these under-resourced migrant encampments and shelters along the U.S.-Mexico border – people stuck there for months because of Trump immigration policies – face disproportionate risks from COVID-19.

“Local and national health authorities in Mexico must act immediately to improve access to COVID-19 testing and care in Matamoros. The families living in the Matamoros tent city are among the most vulnerable in the hemisphere to the spread of COVID-19. The only defenses we have against coronavirus infection – social distancing, proper hygiene, access to health services – are not possible in such an environment. The humanitarian organizations like Global Response Management working to provide health care and support for the migrants in the Matamoros camp are doing herculean work, but the scale of the challenge even before COVID-19 far exceeds available capacity and resources.

“To be clear: the Matamoros encampment is a direct product of cruel U.S. immigration policy. Since long before the pandemic, the Trump administration has stranded some 60,000 asylum seekers at the border through the devastating Migrant Protection Protocols, also known as ‘Remain in Mexico.’ PHR has consistently called on the Department of Homeland Security to process these asylum seekers and allow them to safely shelter with family in the United States while their asylum claims are considered.

“Now the Trump administration is using COVID-19 to pursue its anti-immigration agenda, blocking and expelling asylum seekers who seek admission at the border and violating the internationally recognized right to seek asylum. The United States government has taken the extreme step of categorically banning asylum seekers from entry at the border while allowing other travelers, such as truckers to enter – a ban that infectious disease experts agree makes no public health sense. The asylum ban is xenophobia disguised as public health policy.

“We are already seeing alarming disparities in COVID-19 testing, care, and mortality outcomes. Those who have sought refuge in the United States from persecution around the world have been left stranded along the border, and now have been all but forsaken by the U.S. government amid an unprecedented pandemic.

“This was the first confirmed positive COVID-19 case, but it surely won’t be the last. The Mexican government must act now to provide necessary health care and treatment to asylum seekers with COVID-19. However, the vast majority of asylum seekers in Matamoros have family and friends in the United States to whom they could be released and where they can shelter in place, pending their immigration hearings. The parole of asylum seekers under these so-called ‘Migration Protection Protocols’ should be swift, as they have already undergone Customs and Border Protection processing on prior occasions and are already in U.S. immigration court proceedings. If these actions aren’t taken immediately, coronavirus has the potential to spread like wildfire through the camp and cause unimaginable suffering and death.”

Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) is a New York-based advocacy organization that uses science and medicine to prevent mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. Learn more here.