A joint report by the Boston College School of Social Work and Harvard Global Health Institute describes a serious public health crisis at the United States-Mexico border, where thousands of migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. are vulnerable to infectious diseases, chronic health problems, mental health risks, violence, and criminal activity.
“The more evidence we present, the more light we throw on the situation and, our hope is, the more voices will join together to demand a change . . . Above all, we want to make sure that people know what is going on at the border, to cut through the political dimensions and focus on the human aspect.”
The health crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border has been building for the past two years, according to Fr. Olayo-Méndez and his co-authors, in the wake of policy changes and practices enacted or encouraged by the Trump administration that affect migrants’ ability to seek asylum—a right guaranteed under U.S. law. One is “metering,” which restricts the number of migrants requesting asylum each day at a U.S. point of entry, requiring them to remain in Mexico for their turn to state their claim for asylum. Another is the Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, where asylum seekers who have already been received and inspected by the U.S. government must wait in Mexico for their legal proceedings.
The result has been a logjam at entry points along the U.S.-Mexico border, according to “A Population in Peril.” Since January of 2019, under the MPP, the U.S. government has sent more than 64,000 individuals to Mexico to await legal proceedings; of these, 537 have been granted leave to stay in the U.S., and the average wait time for the initial immigration court date is almost 90 days. They have been joined by thousands more would-be asylum seekers idled by metering. The asylum process often takes three or more interviews before a decision is made. For now, during this time, asylum seekers have to wait in Mexico.
Meanwhile, the report notes, where in past years the typical U.S.-bound migrant was most likely to be a single adult, it is now persons in family units or unaccompanied minors who form the majority: The 64,000 people sent to Mexico under MPP included at least 16,000 children and 500 infants less than a year old. Increasing numbers of these migrants are fleeing poverty or violence, and given the arduous journey many take—often facing personal as well as financial danger—they are likely to arrive at the border physically and emotionally depleted. Some, such as mothers, pregnant women, and LGBTQI individuals, are at particularly high risk.
Entry points along the border where asylum seekers must wait are scarcely safe havens, given the spike in demand for essential services like food, shelter, water, and medical supplies. Casas de migrantes—shelters run by faith-based organizations—are typically “underfunded and overburdened,” often forced to ration food or charge for room and board, while rented rooms tend to be costly, overcrowded, and located in unsafe neighborhoods. The options for asylum seekers are to squat in abandoned buildings, sleep in the streets, or join makeshift, large-scale tent encampments.
The report was largely researched and compiled before the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, and thus does not address its impact. But Fr. Olayo-Méndez said the coronavirus has unquestionably put a further strain on services and contributed to the overall stress and anxiety among the migrants and those aiding them. [Read more in an opinion piece by the research team on COVID-19 at the border.]