By Todd Bensman as originally published November 17 by the Center for Immigration Studies
AUSTIN, Texas — Two irrefutable facts militate for an immediate re-do of President Donald Trump’s original Coronavirus-containment closure order for the U.S.-Mexico border:
– Mexicans sick with the virus have overrun hospitals in their own cities along the border, such as in Ciudad Juarez, to the point that they are unable to care for the patients they have, let alone new ones, or those who have died.
– Left with no possibility of care in Mexican border states, Covid-sick patients with green cards, dual citizenship, or border crossing passes are legally exploiting loop holes that riddle President Trump’s March 2020 emergency border closure to reach US hospitals in El Paso and elsewhere.
A Federal Problem, Not for the States
The goal for a border closure do-over is to better manage growing American hospital bed space shortages in border states by also saving a drowning neighbor and ally. As perhaps the nation’s reddest hotspot, the city of El Paso represents an emblematic case in point as hospitalizations doubled since September to 59,940 patients as of November 10 and averaging 1,800 new cases a day, twice the number in more populous Dallas County. El Paso’s hospitals are so overwhelmed they are having to ship patients throughout the interior United States to keep beds open while the city issues mandatory business closures that leave entirely unaddressed the fact that Mexico is at least one major source of patients.
As I reported two weeks preceding this state of affairs, on October 27, it was no coincidence that Juarez’s hospitals had by then already collapsed under the strain of their own patients, leaving untended bodies on stretchers packed in hospital storage rooms, patients dying while waiting for care in parking lot vehicles, and long lines to buy oxygen. Covid patients in Mexico had no choice but to flee north. One measure of how bad the Juarez hospital crisis has become is that Mexico’s 23rd Infantry Battalion of the 9th Cavalry Regiment was forced to set up emergency clinics across from El Paso in Chihuahua State. America’s southern neighbor can’t keep up with the bodies and burials.
No one seems to work very hard to maintain exact numbers of patients crossing from Mexico for U.S. care. But El Paso County officials and hospital administrators have known about the Mexico patient flow into local hospitals for months.
“People are coming to the ports of entry in very dire conditions,” Vince Perez, El Paso County Commissioner told local TV station KFOX-14 as long ago as May.
More recently, in November, El Paso city ambulance drivers, health administrators, city officials, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection all have admitted that ill Mexicans are crossing the international bridges from benighted Juarez, often calling El Paso Fire Department medics to pick them up and deliver them to El Paso’s packed-to-capacity hospitals.
“There’s somedays where it’s only three or four times and other days when it will be 13 or 14 responses. You’ll be there for one patient and [CBP] customs will let you know, hey there’s another one right behind them and another one sometime there are four or five waiting in line,” the city’s local television station, KFOX-14 News quoted an anonymous fire department whistleblower on October 28. “Multiple times in this pandemic we will be in a complete system overload where there are no ambulances available” because they were picking up patients at El Paso’s international bridges.
Deputy Fire Chief Jorge Rodriguez told the city council in early November that “Once they are on U.S. soil, we have a legal responsibility to provide services to anyone who is inside the city limits, and we continue to do that.”
El Paso’s hospitals, in turn, had become so full by mid-November that an airlift was ordered to transport Covid patients to hospitals throughout the Texas interior. Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute believed this problem was so pronounced that it even proposed a plan for Mexican ambulances to cut to the front of long lines at ports of entry so Covid patients could reach American hospitals faster.
Similar circumstances are reported in California’s border-hugging Imperial Valley, Arizona, and New Mexico, where infected patients are fleeing overwhelmed Mexico-side hospitals to facilities on the US side. One doctor in an Arizona hospital system, in an off-record interview, estimated to me that at least 75 percent of the Covid patients had fled overwhelmed Mexican hospitals in neighboring Sonora State.
Clearly, Mexico is at least one significant source of Covid hospitalizations, though almost certainly in addition to local spread in border cities too.
But while border state governors and local officials are responding with lockdowns to bring the local spread under control as a means to protect hospital systems, they can do nothing about the Mexico source because that is entirely a federal matter.
How could this be happening if President Trump closed the border to contain spread of the disease?
“Thousands of People” Exploit Loop holes in President Trump’s Border Closure
The President’s border closure only prohibits inbound crossings by those traveling “for tourism purposes, such as sightseeing, recreation, gambling or attending cultural events.” Everyone else, including “individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States), is pretty much free to cross at will with any one of a panoply of visas.
Although the March 20 emergency border closure could have done so, it did not prevent U.S. expatriates, green-card holders, Mexican dual-citizens, and anyone claiming to be an “essential worker” from returning and heading to the hospitals. Gustavo Sanchez, president of the El Paso regional union representing U.S. Customs officers was quoted November 2 saying thousands of people with regular border crosser cards (issued by U.S. consulates and valid for ten years) come and go as they please with or without Covid, making the essential-travel order difficult for the agency to enforce.
“We got thousands of people crossing. The hospitals in Juarez are full to capacity. Any little thing that’s even non-life threatening, they’re bringing them over here because they’re saturated. Their hospitals are saturated,” Sanchez said.
An American Medical Aid Operation with Thorough Border Closure is Essential
An argument is easily made that the United States holds a national interest in preserving its hospital space and treatment resources for American citizens inside their own borders who suffered months of lockdowns and restrictions for the sole purpose of preserving that resource for U.S. citizens. It was not the U.S. government’s purpose or intention to see the hospital system substantially repurposed for those sickened in other countries, with no official acknowledgement that it happening on some significant scale.
The U.S. government must suture closed most of the loopholes in its original emergency order in that national interest, blocking for a time even American expatriates in Mexico, who of their own voluntary accord, chose to live abroad and shoulder the risks that decision entailed during the pandemic. The U.S. president has the authority to do so.
However, the American government must balance any tightening of the border with a responsibility not to condemn its own citizens, or even Mexicans living just across the border, to a collapsing Mexican hospital system, with no recourse to life-saving care.
The dual solution is obvious: the United States should immediately help Mexico expand its health care systems and, perhaps by employing the military, provision it with necessary equipment and personnel to ensure that allied nation can cope with the pandemic crisis on its side of the border. Only after that is assured can the United States fully suture shut the border closure loopholes that now enable thousands to push American border state hospitals toward their own crises.
Assisting Mexico with its Covid crisis, with emergency airlifts and overland convoys, is in the American national interest in that it protects and preserves U.S. systems while easing the humanitarian crisis of a close partner.
Yet, in the bizarre absence of official acknowledgement that Mexico is a significant source of Covid patients, the U.S. government is instead sending aid to U.S.-side hospitals that does nothing to address the problem at its Mexican source or preserve U.S. beds and financial resources to care for U.S. citizens. The U.S. Department of Defense, for instance, recently deployed 60 medical personnel to El Paso’s overflowing hospitals while all the border loopholes requiring their assistance in the first place remain wide open.
The United States has sent hundreds of millions of dollars and equipment to China and Latin American countries — spare masks, gloves and ventilators — but has fallen short of doing what is necessary to expand the capacity and capability of Mexico’s hospital system in that nation’s border states of Coahuila, Sonora, Baja, and Tamaulipas.
The time has arrived to reassess all of the policy scripts that were initially written for a medical problem that has gone drastically misdiagnosed and, as a result, is now endemic.