From the Border to NYC: COVID-19 Makes Life Even More Precarious for the Undocumented

Issue 255.5

At a refugee camp in Mexico, detention centers in Texas, New York and New Jersey, on the streets of Brooklyn — here's how immigrant communities are responding to the threat of the virus. And how to help.

Amba Guerguerian Apr 28, 2020

Some of those hit hardest by the pandemic are undocumented migrants. 

There are about 300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cameron County, Texas, the southeasternmost county on the U.S. side of the Mexican border. Cameron County is home to the Port Isabel Detention Center and the Brownsville-Matamoros Bridge, which crosses the border between Brownsville and Matamoros in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. 

Despite the fear and uncertainty that many living in the camp are dealing with, ingenuity flourishes.

Since January of 2019, when the Trump Administration enacted the Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP), also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the amount of asylum seekers allowed to cross the Brownsville-Matamoros Bridge has been reduced to a trickle. The vast majority of refugees are forced to wait at the Matamoros refugee camp, since the change in policy allows Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials to deny non-Mexican asylum seekers entry to the country, forcing them to remain in Mexico with little to no legal assistance while their asylum claims are adjudicated in U.S. immigration court.

The legality of the protocol is questionable under international refugee law. 

Currently, amid the pandemic, the southern border is closed to refugees, because asylum-seeking is not considered an “essential” reason to travel to the United States. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, volunteers were crossing the bridge every day to bring resources to the refugee camp in Matamoros. Many of them belong to a women-led grassroots organization based out of Brownsville and McAllen, Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley. There was also a strong volunteer presence from Team Brownsville and their Escuelita de la Banqueta, the Sidewalk School for Asylum Seekers, World Central Kitchen, and Global Response Management (GRM), a non-profit group that provides medical aid to refugee centers in different parts of the world. 

Volunteers provided food and other resources people in the camp might need and started schooling programs for the children. 

Now, for fear of the virus spreading from Cameron County into the camp, only members of GRM, the Sidewalk School, and a pastor regularly visit the camp. World Central Kitchen and Team Brownsville have outsourced their meal provision efforts to local Matamoros restaurants, who deliver breakfast and dinner to an estimated 3,000 refugees that reside at the camp. Angry Tias and Abuelas order food and other supplies like beans, rice, oil, maseca, fruit and vegetables from local Matamoros businesses and pay a local resident to deliver them to the camp.

“There is definitely a lowering of morale at the camp,” says Susan Law, a founding member of Angry Tías and Abuelas. “A combination of a lack of visible volunteer support, the rescheduling of court hearings, and knowledge that the virus could arrive at any time has caused some people who were in MPP to cross the river in panic.”

All non-detainee immigration court hearings are being delayed due to the pandemic. This may be a temporary relief for some who have made it to their friends and family in the U.S. but could be a death sentence for those that are waiting in Mexico. 

Despite the fear and uncertainty that many living in the camp are dealing with, ingenuity flourishes. While breakfast and dinners are provided, families make lunches in community kitchens built out of mud. Everything is fire-powered, as there is no gas and very minimal electricity. 

A clay-built kitchen at the Matamoros refugee camp. Photo: Courtesy of the Angry Tías and Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley.

Education efforts have been insourced to the camp and asylum seekers who are teachers are now running the Sidewalk School, which was started by a Texan volunteer. Six refugees are making masks for the camp with sewing machines and cloth brought over by volunteers. 

“It has been very inspiring to see how people took it upon themselves to figure out how to survive,” Law remarks. 

There are some things that the people in the camp have little power over though, like the amount of showers and hand-washing stations and the crowded conditions. Tents are side-by-side, with multiple people living in each one, making social distancing impossible. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, the camp grew exponentially. “It’s just kept growing and growing and growing,” said Law. 

Meanwhile, some people are getting sick with coronavirus-like symptoms, and fear of an outbreak runs rampant. Health care workers from GRM recently to set up a hospital tent, the resources for which are ready weeks ago, waiting across the border, while the Mexican government made them jump through endless loopholes to get approval.


Traveling through Central America to make it to the border and eventually into the United States is a treacherous journey that usually takes weeks or months and often includes a variety of transportation methods, including taking buses, holding onto the backs of trains that might not stop for days and walking through desert. If you hire a coyote for part of the journey, you might travel underneath a bus with dirty diapers to offset police dogs or cross a part of the border that is a sewer, wading through it disguised by floating trash. Once you cross the border, you are on your own again in some of the driest parts of America.

‘It’s prison. We call them detention centers to be nice.’

With the militarization of border security more intense than ever, most refugees turn themselves in, explaining that they left their home with credible fear, that they want to make a claim for asylum. Historically, everyone has the right to have their asylum case heard in front of a judge but, emboldened by the MPP and the discretion it grants them to refuse asylum seekers, Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) agents began sending people back into life-threatening conditions to await their trials even before the rise of coronavirus. 

On a whim, U.S. border officials might illegally deport someone back to their home country before they have the chance to even make a claim for asylum, essentially sentencing many to the fate they fled: torture and possibly death. 

A few miles north of Brownsville is the Port Isabel Detention Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, where another Angry Tía, Madeleine Sandefur, works with detained asylum seekers. 

For those that aren’t familiar with what a detention center is like, Sandefur explains, “It’s prison. We call them detention centers to be nice. At least four separate dormitories are spread out in this 1,500-capacity facility, with each dorm separated into four pods. Each pod holds between 60 and 75 men, where they eat, sleep and shower together. Social distancing is obviously impossible.”

Almost all of the detainees Sandefur interacts with arrived at the border before MPP came into effect in Cameron and neighboring Hidalgo County in September of 2019 and still await indefinite release based on the outcome of their asylum cases. They were detained because they were traveling without family and/or did not have a sponsor in the United States. Before MPP took effect, families were generally released from detention after a few days of processing. 

Sandefur is the liaison between about 25 detainees and the outside world. She puts money in their commissary and phone accounts and writes them encouraging notes — especially important work now that visitations have been suspended. 

“Some need sponsors, lawyers, bondsmen, documentation from their families, etc.,” she explains. “So I say, ‘Okay, have them email it to me.’ I connect them with the other Tías, potential sponsors, lawyers and their family members.” 

Notwithstanding the outbreak of a pandemic, health measures are bleak at Port Isabel. One detainee has been awaiting eye surgery for six to seven weeks, Sandefur says. ICE claims that he cannot have the surgery because new coronavirus restrictions prohibit elective surgeries. He is going blind.

‘I was sick for ten days, really sick. I couldn’t eat. I lost forty-five pounds…’

When it comes to the virus, ICE has not been entirely forthcoming with the detainees, according to Sandefur. After they asked officers for information on COVID-19, guards prevented them from watching CNN. Some detainees started a hunger strike, but it only lasted a few days, due to threats and retaliation from ICE. They talk to Sandefur in hushed tones over the phone now, for fear the guards will overhear what they say.

Neither hand sanitizer nor soap are available. One detainee said that they do not have masks, while someone in a different dorm said that they might receive them upon request. Only some of the guards cover their faces. When a detainee asked one of the officers why he wasn’t wearing a mask, the guard replied, “It’s all fake news!”

After a worker tested positive at Port Isabel, ICE claimed that he had no interaction with detainees. A detainee who was recently released tells Sandefur that although the man’s main job was in a dining hall for officers and lawyers, he also worked in one of the dorms.


Oftentimes, people are transferred from one detention center to another. One Cuban woman was detained in Hidalgo, about sixty miles west of Brownsville, after waiting for almost two months to enter the country through the bridge there. She was then transferred to Adams County Correctional Center, where she awaits her asylum trial, which will be held in New York via video call. She had never been to the United States before. She has COVID-19 symptoms and is asthmatic but her requests to be seen by a medical professional have been denied.

“I feel weak, tired, sleepy and have headaches,” she says, in a recorded phone conversation shared with The Indypendent by Andres Jimenez, the Anti-Detention Coordinator at New Sanctuary Coalition. “Conditions in the center are not favorable because of coronavirus. We are worried and locked — so many of us — together. There’s people with fever but they won’t check on us on time. They’ll come once the fever is over. We are scared.  We don’t have gloves or masks.” 

If an undocumented person has a run-in with ICE or a person with legal permanent resident status has an interaction with the criminal justice system here in New York City, they can be sent to a jail or a detention facility in New York or New Jersey, where they await trial. They can be jailed and deported for committing any crime that has a maximum sentence of a year or more, which can mean shoplifting or prostitution, or any crime of “moral turpitude” which includes infractions such as “mayhem” and welfare fraud. 

A man held at Hudson County Jail, New Jersey, who Jimenez spoke with, told him how the facility is handling the coronavirus: 

My bunkmate came out positive for coronavirus. He used to sleep above me until yesterday. They sprayed my whole room with a machine. I asked, what about me? They said I’m okay. I have a mask that I’ve been using for the last two weeks. The other day I couldn’t breathe, but they won’t send me downstairs [for a check up]. I have respiratory problems. Once a month, I’m supposed to go downstairs and get checked. More people are sick. I was sick for ten days, really sick. I couldn’t eat. I lost forty-five pounds in one month. They tested me after a week with the fever, as I was getting better. I tested negative but I’m worried I have it now.

Even if immigrants aren’t detained, they are often living in conditions that put them at higher risk of contracting the virus, says Ravi Ragbir, New Sanctuary Coalition’s director. 

“Many of them are living in cramped spaces,” he said. “Many are living multiple families in one apartment or one unit. Plus, everyone has to find a way to work. Living paycheck to paycheck means that tomorrow they don’t have money for food, for any of their bills.” 

A food distribution hub run by the Brooklyn Immigrant Community Coalition. Volunteers are accepting donations through GoFundMe. Photo: Jordan Rathkopf.

Ragbir points out that in many areas, grocery stores are being restocked, but there were already food deserts through immigrant sections of the Bronx and Brooklyn. This means that now people have to travel farther to access groceries putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus. 

“It’s a lot of stress that our community is facing,” he says. 

On top of it all, if a person is undocumented, they do not qualify for a stimulus check or unemployment. In fact, if you are married to a person without a social security number, you will almost certainly be disqualified from receiving a stimulus check. Meanwhile, the limited job choices for those who lack documentation often make them frontline workers: picking food, cooking it, delivering it. They avoid going to the hospital, because they are often uninsured and fear breaking Trump’s “public charge” rule, and also dread an encounter with ICE there. 

People who are fleeing their home countries are leaving the world they know behind in order to escape persecution and starvation. They are not criminals but they are treated as such. The moment they enter the U.S., Immigration officials and for-profit contractors lock them in cages, the keys to which are sometimes never found. Sandefur knows people that have waited in border detention facilities for years, with no end in sight and for no clear reason. Law knows of families who may never see their children again, who were taken from them by ICE and sent to foster homes in unknown parts of the United States. 

While the mishandling of this crisis makes it ever-clearer that not all lives are valued equally in this country, our pre-virus past was not a time when things were “good” and “normal.” Many immigrants were already living in crisis mode, and COVID-19 is pushing them to the breaking point. 

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