Fran Schindler is 81 years old. The Chapel Hill, North Carolina-based immigration activist is now stuck in Brownsville, Texas, though all the other volunteers with her group have left. At her age, and with the coronavirus pandemic raging, it’s safer for her to remain in the border town than to navigate any air travel.
But right now, she has bigger concerns than her own health or getting back to North Carolina. She was in Brownsville, Texas for the March 13th asylum hearing of two brothers, Enrique, 23, and Melvin, 21, who she befriended while volunteering in the border camp in Matamores, Mexico, which abuts Brownsville. The brothers fled Guatemala, where Melvin says he was shot six times after refusing to join a local gang. Their asylum was denied — despite Schindler being present in the tented court room and offering to sponsor the men — and they are planning to appeal.
But before their appeal could get underway, coronavirus panic hit North America. Schindler is sure that if their appeal is denied and they are sent back home, they will be killed — if COVID-19 doesn’t kill them in the camp first.
She’s not the only person concerned about conditions in the camp. Matamores is unique from other border towns in that most of the approximately 2,000 asylum seekers there are congregated on a muddy stretch of land approximately two football fields long. Migrants in the camp are part of the United States’ Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), also known as Remain in Mexico, where asylum seekers await their court hearings in one of seven Mexican border towns.
“Our population in the asylum camps are incredibly vulnerable,” says Andrea Lanier, a nurse practitioner working in emergency medicine and Director of Strategic Planning for Global Response Management, the nonprofit that operates the only health clinic in the camp. “Quarantine is not possible. Containment is not possible. They are living in tents, squished together.”
On Tuesday, the White House submitted an emergency funding request which includes $567 million to fund up to nine "migrant quarantine facilities along the Southwest border, including repurposed soft-sided facilities originally used for the migrant surge in 2019." Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) “are blatantly ignoring CDC guidelines — when the experts are advising against gatherings of more than 10 people, they’re trying to crowd more immigrants together in deadly conditions,” says Alyssa Rubin, campaign director for Never Again Action, a Jewish-led immigrant rights organization. ICE raids are continuing to happen in sanctuary cities like Los Angeles, despite the threat to public health that may ensue.
Global Response Management, a women- and veteran-led organization, says they are putting prevention measures in place to the best of their ability, and they are preparing to operate a field hospital to treat moderately to severely ill people. Dairon Rojas, GRM’s lead physician and a Cuban asylum seeker himself, has been providing daily education to the residents of the Matamores camp about how to take precautions and what to do if someone in their community gets sick.
“This is not migrant protection, they just want to call it that,” says Schindler, the activist from North Carolina. “This is migrant send-them-back-and-get-them-murdered. It is inhumane, it is unjust, it is cruelty.”
Although Rojas and the GRM team are committed to doing everything possible to prevent widespread illness, the best that the can do will be in a tent, with no electricity or water supply and no ventilators, and will have 20 beds.
Other immigrant rights groups are also sounding the alarm, using the hashtag #FreeThemAll to advocate that detained migrants be released. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES Texas) has written a letter to Daniel Bible, field office director of ERO San Antonio, demanding that he “use his powers to release immigrants in detention who are at great risk during normal times, let-alone during a pandemic.”
“All those who have been subject to the Trump administration’s roster of anti-immigrant policies are in a vulnerable position; from those in detention to those living under MPP,” reads RAICES’ statement. “Immigration detention conditions are already poor, so a coronavirus outbreak could be a disaster.”
Similarly, Never Again Action is hosting mass calls to create a rapid response network to “stop these [concentration camps] from becoming death camps.” (Disclosure: I have organized with Never Again Action in the past). “These are the conditions that killed Anne Frank,” says Rubin. “Anne Frank didn’t die in a gas chamber — she died of typhus, an infectious disease. Crowded and unsanitary conditions always lead to mass deaths during an outbreak.”
Schindler says she will remain in Brownsville for the time being, and she stays in touch with Enrique and Melvin via What’s App messages. She, too, sees the comparisons to the Holocaust, and she refuses to look away. “The tagline here is ‘somebody named Schindler did this for the Jews a long time ago in Nazi Germany and now there is a woman named Schindler who is trying to do the same thing [for migrants] here.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the NHS website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.