Fear of coronavirus in Mexican migrant camp limits volunteers access, concern DHS officials

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'This year’s drama is the coronavirus'

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS (Border Report) — From DHS officials working the border to asylum-seekers living in encampments in northern Mexico, fear of the coronavirus hopping the Rio Grande has stoked concern, isolation and some panic.

At a Border Security Expo held in San Antonio this week, U.S. Customs and Border Protection Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez kicked off the event Wednesday by thanking the 1,100 participants — many from Department of Homeland Security agencies — for braving coronavirus risks and attending the annual conference. The city is housing coronavirus quarantined evacuees at Lackland Air Force Base.

Many conferences have been canceled and several agencies and private businesses have begun restricting travel, but the Border Security Expo continued, even as the World Health Organization on Wednesday declared coronavirus a pandemic.

Expo Board Chairman Thomas Winkowski, former principal deputy assistant secretary of Immigration Customs Enforcement and former acting commissioner of CBP, said no conference speakers had canceled from attending despite reports of cases of coronavirus in San Antonio. Attendees came from over 50 government agencies and 14 countries.

Read a Border Report story on the Border Security Expo.

Hundreds of coronavirus evacuees from cruise ships are being brought into San Antonio’s Lackland base. At least 100 arrived on Tuesday night and 130 arrived on Wednesday. They add to the 235 people who have been quarantined since February at Lackland AFB because of concerns about coronavirus after being evacuated from China’s Hubei province where the virus first started.

The Lone Star State’s second most populated city is among a few sites selected by the federal government to house those quarantined for coronavirus including those who have traveled overseas and those who have been exposed to COVID-19, which causes the novel coronavirus.

“Ever since I’ve become chairman there’s always some drama with the Expo, either a continuing resolution in Congress like last year when there was a partial government shutdown,” Winkowski said. “This year’s drama is the coronavirus.”

Asylum-seekers are seen on Jan. 28, 2020, sleeping in tents near the Gateway International Bridge in Matamoros, Mexico. An estimated 3,000 migrants live in the encampment, which is an area where coronavirus could quickly spread from family to family if an infected person enters the area. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Many attendees purposefully did not shake hands upon greeting one another, opting to offer fist bumps or head nods from several feet away. Even the conference seats were spaced apart, as health officials have suggested keeping a 6-foot berth to avoid being contaminated.

Fear of the virus spreading has caused South Texans from the group Team Brownsville to issue a rule Thursday forbidding volunteers to help in the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, if they are traveling from areas where coronavirus is prevalent, or if they have been on airplanes.

Andrea Rudnik, who is in charge of volunteers for the group, told Border Report that this decision was not made easily and she has since received many disappointed and even angry emails from volunteers who had airline tickets from California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts.

These people are pretty isolated and if anything a volunteer will bring it into the encampment and bring it to them and we don’t want to do that.”

Andrea Rudnik of Team Brownsville volunteers

“The main concern is that we will not know when volunteers arrive from potentially anywhere in the country carrying the virus and we don’t want to be the ones who actually bring it into the encampment,” Rudnik said. “These people are pretty isolated and if anything a volunteer will bring it into the encampment and bring it to them and we don’t want to do that. … They’re much more vulnerable then we are in the States. We have a lot more medical care.”

Andrea Rudnik heads volunteers for the South Texas group Team Brownsville, which daily deliver food and supplies to asylum-seekers living at a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Rudnik said there are also concerns that if coronavirus were to be discovered in the camp, where an estimated 3,000 asylum-seekers live on the banks of the Rio Grande near the Gateway International Bridge across from Brownsville, that Mexican officials will take over the camp.

Camp volunteers have walked a delicate line, meeting weekly with Mexican officials and only taking in items that are cleared by Mexican authorities. They even moved the tent encampment further up the banks closer to the river in late January at the government’s request. It’s widely known that Mexican authorities do not want the camp and have tried to relocate the migrants to shelters in the city.

But the migrants have felt safe so close to the Gateway International Bridge, a stone’s throw from the Brownsville banks. And so Rudnik said it’s imperative they don’t do anything to stoke the ire of Mexican authorities, or needlessly expose the migrants to the potentially deadly virus.

Read a Border Report story on the camp moving.

“The message is you can plan and you can say this is what you’re going to do. But when it actually comes time to see people in the encampment actually diagnosed with the virus, that’s when the Mexican government’s own system will kick in and there will be decisions made on how people go, how people are quarantined and who gets in and out, and we won’t be able to do anything at that point,” Rudnik said. “We will not have any say so.”

Rudnik’s group delivers meals and supplies six days a week to the migrants in the encampment. She says she believes they have enough local volunteers and supplies to meet the demand, at least for a while. Meals are cooked in Brownsville by World Central Kitchen and then taken over in a caravan of pull carts.

Team Brownsville volunteers are seen on Jan. 6, 2020, taking supplies to Matamoros, Mexico, to aid the asylum-seekers living in a tent encampment there. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Obviously, people who signed up months ago who have tickets are very disappointed,” Rudnik said. “People are upset and people are angry — not at us, but just angry at the situation. And we have to say we don’t know how long this will last.”

Visit the BorderReport.com homepage for the latest exclusive stories and breaking news about issues along the United States-Mexico border.

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