Amid a contradictory set of public reports (and public policies) about who can cross the U.S./Mexican border today, we are learning that most humanitarian volunteers are making it through. Tijuana seems more reliably open to volunteers and aid workers than Matamoros, though workers we’ve been in touch with there report that passage through for U.S. passport holders is still largely open.
Current policy during the COVID-19 special-rules period does create far more discretion for ICE and CBP agents to block individuals whose work is seen as nonessential. By far, though, larger impacts are coming from volunteers choosing not to attempt the crossing than from reported cases of people being blocked.
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Another concern: more information from humanitarian volunteers being collected during crossings. One volunteer tells us that “when they type anything while they’re talking with me or when I step away, I assume they’re adding to my file. And they’re looking harder and talking more, though I haven’t been prevented from Center coming through. And there are no crowds anymore right now.”
Given the greater discretion now explicitly granted to agents, what you say matters when asked why you’re coming into Mexico, or when you’re crossing back what you’ve done there. One group doing advising and accompaniment work in Tijuana has long counseled its volunteers to say something like “I’m visiting friends.” Given that the compas they serve ought to be regarded as friends – no fabrication there, but also no yellow flag about activism. Today, with explicit rules blocking nonessential crossing in force at times, that might raise the chances of being blocked. We’re hearing from several folks that “I’m doing humanitarian relief work” seems to work consistently.
Most volunteers we’ve spoken with who have made repeated trips in the past are staying away, out of fear of infecting migrants, out of fear of being blocked at the border and perhaps detained, out of fear that the entry back into the US might be blocked, or some combination of all these concerns.
Themonitor.com offered this reporting on the situation on March 22:
Gaby Zavala, co-founder of Resource Matamoros, said locally-based aid networks have been coordinating among each other in anticipation of the border closure and were prepared to shift their efforts to a remote operation through use of technology and skeleton crews volunteering asylum seekers.
“Most of the organizations have already stopped coming. We’re communicating, of course, through telephone and through Zoom conference, as well,” she said.
Zavala explained that specific volunteers in Matamoros are handling purchases by use of donations. “People are sending funds in so that we can carry on the work for the organizations that can’t formally be here. Global Response Management is here. Resource Center is here. And there are a couple of Angry Tias and Abuelas that are coming in and continuing to stock up the tent stores and things like that,” she said.
“The Resource Center is helping with regards to the hand washing, the camp sanitation, education, and prevention. We’re also working very closely with INM (Instituto Nacional de Migración) to address serious issues in the camp.”
Zavala said the center, which coordinates medical care and transport to and from medical appointments and court hearings, is still doing trips to hospitals as needed. “We can still continue to provide services. We still have the medical clinic open. And Catholic Charities is still coming over with supplies.”
The director said she plans to stay in Matamoros for the time being and that office staff are not allowing anyone into the building. The center is assisting Lawyers for Good Government (L4GG) to provide legal services through use of a video intercom system. Staff collects clients’ information and photographs documents through the screen.