Omicron threatens migrants stranded in Mexico due to Biden’s border policy

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Similar to the US, omicron has led to an increase in caseloads and hospitalizations across Mexico. For thousands of migrants stranded in the country due to US border policy, it meant being exposed to the highly contagious variant. Worse, many of these migrants face the prospect of contracting Covid-19 without widespread access to vaccines or healthcare.

Migrants have a legal right to public health care in Mexico, but nonprofits that care for migrants say hospitals are overwhelmed by Mexican Covid-19 patients and migrants are therefore the first to be turned away.

Neither the US nor the Mexican government provide data on the number of migrants stranded in Mexico. But the available data provide some clues. For one, asylum applications in Mexico surged in 2021, suggesting that tens of thousands of migrants seeking to enter the US have chosen to stay in Mexico instead. It was last year 131,000 this asylum seeker. The Biden administration has also more than expelled migrants at the border 1.1 million times since January 2021. Most of these migrants have been returned to Mexico, but some, including nearly 14,000 Haitianswere sent back to their home country instead.

Based on these numbers, the number of people waiting to enter the US could range from thousands to nearly 1 million. Many live in shelters and in camps in cities like Tapachula and Reynosa along Mexico’s southern and northern borders, in environments that make social distancing difficult, if not impossible. There are NGOs that provide them with it Access to Covid-19 testing and treatment and basic services. But these NGOs are becoming increasingly overwhelmed by demand. And there is only so much they can do to prevent the spread of Covid-19 as many have been unable to secure supplies of vaccines.

“The pandemic is no more significant on this side of the border than on the other side of the border,” said Mark McDonald, project manager for health NGO Global Response Management, which runs a clinic for migrants in Matamoros, Mexico. “But resources at the border are still relatively tight and hospital systems are overwhelmed.”

More than 635,000 people, or about 13.4 percent of those who tested positive are currently hospitalized with the virus in Mexico. Hospitals are sparsely saturated. According to Data by Mexico’s Health Ministry, 228 hospitals across the country reported more than 70 percent of their beds were occupied as of January 26, compared with just 71 hospitals a month earlier; 125 of these facilities had no beds available. Have daily average deaths more than doubled last month to 330 on Jan. 26, but are still well below their peak of more than 1,100 before vaccines were available. More than 303,000 people have died from the virus in Mexico since the pandemic began.

A shortage of hospital places means many sick migrants have nowhere to go. Many face likely danger when they return home. And they cannot enter the United States.

The Biden administration has re-implemented the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program court order in December 2021; Under this program, those wishing to enter the United States must wait in Mexico awaiting their hearings before the immigration court. Migrants are also barred from entering the United States under a pandemic-related border restriction first introduced by the Trump administration and known as the Title 42 directive, which allows the federal government to bar non-citizens from entering the United States for health reasons reasons to prohibit. The former saw those 267 asylum seekers recently returned to Mexico, and the latter accounts for Biden’s 1.1 million expulsions last year.

And all of these people are more than Mexico can support — especially amid the current Omicron spike.

The country has come forward more than 44,000 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, a more than 10-fold increase since December. That’s probably a subcount due to the lack of available testing, and cases are not specifically measured among migrants. Current hotspots are mostly in tourist destinations, including Baja California Sur, Yucatan and Quintana Roo, but transmission remains high across the country.

About 60 percent of Mexico’s population is fully vaccinated, more or less in line with the US, where about 64 percent population is vaccinated. The US have vaccinated the few hundred migrants so far subject to the Remain-in-Mexico program before being sent back across the border, with adults receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccines and eligible children receiving the Pfizer vaccine.

There were also local vaccination campaigns in cities like Tijuana, where thousands of migrants are staying. But Mexico hasn’t launched a national campaign to get migrants vaccinated because it just doesn’t have the capacity. The US has the ability to fill that gap. However, it has chosen not to, and instead dumped its responsibility for the health of those it holds in legal limbo on to Mexico.

“I think that [the US] put on blinkers and said, “We have dealt with any crisis that may arise on the United States side.” We forget that there is another side of the border that we have also affected,” McDonald said.

Migrants rely on NGOs to access healthcare

Global Response Management is the only health NGO serving the migrant community in Matamoros and is currently experiencing a peak in demand: around 30 to 40 patients per day, with more on the waiting list. The vast majority of care seekers are Haitians, but there are also Mexicans from the south of the country, Nicaraguans, Hondurans and Guatemalans.

The clinic is only open Monday through Friday and while it has some emergency care facilities, it is not able to handle all medical emergencies. For this it still refers patients to the local hospital system – but when there are not enough beds due to Covid-19 patients, migrants have the lowest priority.

Recently, a patient at the clinic was going into labor with a high-risk pregnancy and was told the hospital was full. The clinic was able to work with legal organizations to transfer the patient to a hospital across the border through what is known as “probation,” a kind of temporary permit to enter the United States. But that took time, which maybe not every patient has.

“Even emergency patients have no guarantee that they will have access to a standard level of care along the border,” McDonald said.

The clinic has been conducting Covid-19 testing, including for new admissions to migrant shelters and for those who have been granted parole in the United States. This is crucial to ensure migrants don’t spread the virus when they are in environments where they cannot maintain social distancing. But these programs are expensive and funded entirely by private donors — not the US or Mexican governments.

Testing is the main preventive measure migrants have access to; Vaccines are simply not available for most. The extent to which migrants are vaccinated is usually because they were accepted into the United States’ Remain in Mexico program and vaccinated before being sent back to Mexico. However, these migrants are in the minority. When it comes to vaccinations, there is little NGOs can do to fill the gaps left by the US and Mexican governments. Global Response Management, for example, cannot administer vaccines without government support because they could not source any and would need more staff.

“We would like to be able to do that. But we also recognized an unwillingness or failure on the part of the US government to make this possible for organizations like ours,” McDonald said. “It should be their responsibility to ensure public health is a priority.”

Biden can safely resume processing migrants at the border

The best thing the US could do to support the health of migrants in Mexico would be to allow them to cross the border to pursue their asylum claims.

That would require Title 42 to be repealed. The Biden administration has repeatedly defended the policy in court as a public health imperative, but public health experts have long argued that there is no scientific justification for the policy. They say it was always possible to treat people safely at the border during the pandemic, but especially now that the US has vaccines, an extensive array of tests and evidence that good masks prevent the virus from spreading.

“Many of us would argue that Title 42 was never justified in the first place,” said Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights. “Now we have all the tools – it just makes it even clearer that this is a political decision.”

The US recently started requiring all non-citizens crossing the US-Mexico border to provide something Proof of a vaccination approved in the USA. However, migrants may not have access to these vaccines in their country of origin or in Mexico. The U.S. has the resources to get them vaccines and should do so, Heisler said.

Indeed, the US weighs more broadly vaccination program for the migrants it is currently allowing across the border (a group of people who make up a much smaller portion of the migrant population stranded in Mexico). Under the program, migrants would reportedly receive their first jab at ports of entry before being allowed to cross the border, and a second dose would become a condition of being granted parole while they await their court hearings in the US.

Creating a similar initiative for migrants who the US refuses to cross would do much to lower infection rates among people trapped in Mexico.

A possible obstacle could be the vaccination hesitancy of the migrant population, said Heisler. This was a stumbling block at US Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities due to a lack of trust in the prison medical providers who administer the vaccines. This could be overcome by sending trusted ambassadors — like NGOs like Global Response Management that already serve the migrant population — and culturally competent communications.

But the challenges of rolling out a vaccination campaign for migrants wouldn’t really be any different than those the US previously encountered when vaccinating its own population.

“I think the logistics are pretty simple. We are not in the first year of the pandemic. We now know how to do that,” said Heisler.

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