Unnoticed by most Americans, May 19 marked an important change in US immigration enforcement. Rather than arriving to border cities such as Tijuana, Reynosa, and Ciudad Juárez, ICE Air’s chartered flights began arriving at Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport. Every Tuesday and Friday, two flights, each filled with up to 133 people, disembark in the very same terminal where American tourists arrive in Mexico.
Observed by representatives from Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Migración (INM), the deportees deplane in a quiet, orderly line, wearing surgical masks and holding shrink-wrapped meals (presumably because the meals cannot be consumed without removing the masks). They make their way to a bus parked outside that will take them to the city’s bus terminals, where they will catch other buses to their home cities. They are not tested or quarantined upon arrival.
For years, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directed deportations to locales distant from the border, as a means of deterring migrants from attempting to cross again. Deportation flights arrived in Mexico City until 2018, when the agency began sending all flights to border cities instead, despite staggering numbers of the newly deported there being kidnapped (in order to extort their families in the United States). In December of 2019, flights to the interior of the country briefly restarted, but this time landed in Guadalajara, a decision that deportee organizers said only made sense if officials were intentionally circumventing Mexico City’s well-organized deportee community—Mexico’s INM has only a small “office of representation” in Guadalajara, whereas the agency is headquartered in the capital.
The flights to Guadalajara were canceled at the start of the Covid-19 crisis, presumably to avoid spreading the virus. Yet Customs and Border Patrol (CBP)’s May 19 press release justified restarting the Mexico City flights with that same goal: “The overarching goal of these repatriation flights is to reduce the spread of COVID-19 into the U.S. and reduce the strain on Mexico’s resources along the border.” The press release states that CBP “has observed an increase in Mexican nationals who make repeated attempts to enter the U.S. illegally and bypass public health measures,” and that these migrants increase the risk of Covid exposure to the American public. Whether or not this is true—activists on the ground in South Texas say border crossings are down significantly—this time around, Mexico’s government was allowed to pick the flights’ destination. It chose Mexico City. Amid so much violence and uncertainty, deportee organizers said, this was a hope in the dark: a safer, better-resourced place for forcibly repatriated Mexicans to touch down.
The collective Deportados Unidos en la Lucha, or DUL, operates out of a three-bedroom apartment in Ciudad Nezahualcoyótl, a city of between two and four million people—many of them internal migrants from Mexico’s countryside—that borders Mexico City to the east. DUL was founded by two Obama-era deportees, Ana Laura López and Gus Lavariega, to provide new deportees with logistical support in finding shelter, acquiring Mexican identity documents, and getting jobs. They focus on aiding deportees over 40, who often have families, lack a command of English (disqualifying them from common return-migrant jobs like teaching English and working at offshore call centers for US companies), and face workforce exclusion because of the country’s severe age discrimination.
Shelter is a challenge because the migrant shelters in Mexico City serve only refugees and asylum seekers from other countries, not Mexican nationals. Identity documents are the second most pressing aspect of the collective’s work because many, if not most, deportees arrive without their birth certificates, Mexican voter IDs, or certificates of repatriation—essentially undocumented all over again, in their country of citizenship. And in addition to age discrimination, deportees face both bureaucratic and workforce discrimination: accusations of having ditched their countrymen, a presumption that they were deported for being criminals or gang members, the familiar anti-immigrant claim that they are “stealing” jobs, and a belief that they must be receiving remittances or have large savings in dollars, though this is not generally true.
In the current crisis, all of this work has changed. Shelters have denied new arrivals; government offices have closed. Deportees who have already been in Mexico for some time have lost their jobs. When all of the upcoming orders for Deportados Brand, the silkscreening business that supports the work of the collective, were canceled, López and Lavariega transformed DUL’s apartment-office into a sewing workshop, employing members of the community to sew masks.
On April 25, a month and a half after the last time many people had seen anyone besides their partners or roommates, and three weeks before deportation flights started arriving in Mexico City, Lavariega went to the city’s nearly empty airport to pick up someone he had never met. A family member of a young man who had recently been deported to Ciudad Juárez had contacted DUL, seeking help in finding their relative safe harbor in pandemic Mexico. The deportee had made it to Guadalajara by bus, but was out of cash and had nowhere to stay. His family wanted to send him money, but couldn’t because he lacked a Mexican ID. López looked into helping him get his voter ID, the basic ID in Mexico, but the offices were closed indefinitely. The country had also stopped processing passports, the other official ID. Finally López recommended that his family reserve him a hotel room and buy him a plane ticket to Mexico City online. In the meantime, she found a shelter that was willing to receive the new deportee, and that had space for him to quarantine alone for fourteen days. But while having surmounted so many obstacles was cause for relief, it was also cause for concern.
“We’ve received six cases since the quarantine started,” López told me on May 15. “So the question is—where are the rest?”
While everyone in the United States and Mexico has been rendered vulnerable by the ways that Covid-19 has been handled and not-handled by the two countries, those who are forcibly denied the right to stay home by the processes of detention and deportation have been rendered particularly so. At all levels of the detention and deportation process, the threat of Covid-19 infection has been magnified in a way that officials seem to have condoned, at the same time that they have used the virus to undermine processes of immigration and asylum.
As a rule, detention centers and jails have staggeringly rapid rates of disease transmission, due to close quarters, limited access to hygiene and health care, and, in some cases, restrictions on alcohol, which limits the amount of hand sanitizer available. In a webinar hosted by Physicians for Human Rights on April 23, Dr. Scott Allen, cofounder and co-director of the Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at Brown University, likened ICE’s failure to empty immigration detention centers to a decision to shut down all sectors of the economy except bars.
“The tinderbox we were worried about is happening,” said Dr. Allen, adding that while we frequently think of centers of confinement as walled off from society, they are not: staff go in and out daily, potentially carrying communicable disease with them. (On June 22, ICE contractor CoreCivic reported that over 100 of its Arizona employees had tested positive for Covid-19.) Further, since many detention centers are located in rural areas, they can easily overwhelm local health-care systems.
Individuals detained in ICE and ICE-contracted facilities overwhelmingly fall into two categories: asylum seekers, and apprehended undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings. 1996’s Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA) both made detention mandatory for the duration of asylum proceedings and vastly expanded the infractions for which asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants could be rendered deportable; since its passage, immigration detention in the United States has expanded from a daily population of 8,500 to 45,000.
In 2013, ICE implemented an algorithm, the Risk Classification Assessment, which allowed detainees deemed not to be “flight risks” or “dangers to the community” to be released with ankle monitors until their court dates—an alternative to detention that costs $4.50 a day instead of over $200. Starting in 2015, pregnant and nursing mothers and families with young children qualified for the Family Case Management Program (FCMP), in which social workers helped families find lawyers and housing, as well as get to their court hearings. Five days after taking office, however, Trump signed an executive order ending these programs, calling for “termination of the practice commonly known as ‘catch and release.’” On June 20 of that year, the FCMP closed, opting instead to hold children in desert tent cities at a cost of $775 per night. By June of 2018, the risk classification algorithm was “modified” to no longer suggest the option “release.”
On April 28, ICE had tested 705, or 1.76 percent, of its 40,000 detainees; 60 percent of the tests had come back positive. The first Covid-19 death in ICE custody took place on May 6: Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía, 57, who was being held at Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego, had come to the US from El Salvador in 1980 with his mother and sisters, fleeing civil war. He had underlying health conditions, including diabetes, and used a wheelchair due to the partial amputation of his right foot. He’d had a bond hearing three weeks earlier, on April 15, at which Judge Lee O’Connor had denied him bond, calling Escobar Mejia a “flight risk.” On May 13, a second detainee, Oscar Lopez Acosta, held at Morrow County Correctional Facility (an ICE-contracted county jail) also passed away from Covid-19. One week earlier, the county health department had stated that fifty of the facility’s eighty inmates were infected with the virus.
There are Supreme Court precedents for communicable disease being considered “cruel and unusual punishment,” not to mention that civil detainees such as asylum seekers are protected from anything that looks like punishment under the fifth and fourteenth amendments’ due process law. On March 16, the ACLU and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project sued ICE on behalf of detainees at the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center, who had gone on hunger strike and spelled out “SOS” with their bodies in the prison yard, demanding the release of detainees at high risk of illness or death from Covid-19. Lawsuits directed at other facilities in other states followed. Yet as of the end of May, ICE had released just 900 detainees.
At the border itself, the Trump administration turned to an 1893 quarantine law—enacted when the colonial US Marine Hospital Service was put in charge of quelling yellow fever in Cuba and South Texas to help ensure US control of those regions—to deport asylum seekers, overriding 2008 laws statutorily exempting children from expedited removal proceedings and stating that border officials must transfer unaccompanied minors from countries that are not contiguous with the United States to the US Refugee Agency within three days. In April 2020, just 58 unaccompanied minors were so transferred, compared to 2,273 in February. And Trump has used pandemic as pretext to not only effect his long-desired asylum ban but also change ordinary immigration policy: his “Proclamation Suspending Entry of Immigrants of Present Risk to U.S. Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the COVID-19 Outbreak,” signed April 22 for sixty days, only to be extended sixty days later to remain in effect until December 31, targets the ability of naturalized citizens to request green cards for their siblings and parents. This is widely known to be a longtime fantasy of Trump advisor Stephen Miller.
Mexico has also suspended its asylum proceedings. (Between 2018 and 2019, as poverty and violence increased in Central America and asylum in the United States became increasingly impossible, the number of asylum petitions filed in Mexico climbed from 26 to 67 thousand.) On April 16, forty organizations filed an amparo, a legal tool used to suspend an action violating laws or rights, against the Instituto Nacional de Migración, for its failure to protect the health of migrants and asylum seekers. Rather than moving asylum seekers to safer, socially distant shelter from which to continue the asylum process, the INM responded by deporting all but 106 of the 3,759 individuals held in its sixty-five detention centers.
Such deportations have had a direct effect on the spread of Covid-19. In early May, Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry reported that 117 cases, or 15 percent of the country’s total, could be traced to four deportation flights from the US. The Guatemalan airport quickly transformed into an encampment of deportees, as the government requires that arrivals test negative for Covid before leaving. And those who do go back to their villages, even with certificates of health, reports Reuters, face threats of lynching, immolation, and social exclusion. In Mexico, deportees are returning to their home communities without passing through a quarantine or even being tested; some communities have closed to outsiders completely, leaving repatriated community members with nowhere to go.
While they are some of society’s most vulnerable in the face of the pandemic, deportees were also, in certain ways, more prepared than anyone for sheltering in place: being unable to see loved ones and communicating virtually is nothing new for the deported community.
Across town from DUL, in Mexico City’s Centro Histórico, the organization Otros Dreams en Acción (ODA) occupies two rooms on the third floor of an old building: an office whose “Accompaniment” team helps new arrivals acquire Mexican identity documents and revalidate their US school degrees, and a cultural space called Poch@ House. (“Poch@” is a derogatory term for people of Mexican descent who don’t speak Spanish fluently, or who have otherwise adopted elements of American culture; the space’s name is an effort to reappropriate it.) In addition to deportees, ODA provides services to returnees—individuals raised undocumented in the US who come back semi-voluntarily after beginning to accrue “unlawful presence” upon their eighteenth birthdays.
Because most of its staff attended school in the United States, ODA’s working language is Spanglish, inflected with Mexico City slang; the organization is millennial and bicultural, with active social media accounts, fundraising efforts directed at foreigners, and a constant stream of visitors, volunteers, and journalists. Poch@ House’s programming ranges from poetry slams to a workshop about how to file taxes in Mexico, promoted with the hashtag #adultinginmexico. Upside-down US and Mexican flags hang from the central roof beam, and the words “de aquí y de allá,” from here and there, are spelled out on the wall in purple, glitter-covered letters.
When quarantine started, ODA’s staff leapt into action, calling all of the organization’s clients to find out who was particularly vulnerable due to illness, loss of work, or vulnerable dependents, and asking what they needed in order to survive the quarantine. Staff and volunteers distributed pantry goods and masks to other community members across the Mexico City metropolitan area. Group therapy sessions moved online. The organization covered rent and medical costs for those who had lost work. As they observed that community members were anxious about their undocumented family members in the United States, they also searched for resources to help them.
Poch@ House’s coordinators realized quarantine was also an opportunity to bring together members of the US and Mexico’s migrant communities through its cultural programming. Though geographically distant, separated by a violent border and unequal regimes of citizenship and mobility, they were ironically now as close to each other via Zoom as anyone else. ODA began inviting not only Mexico’s deportee and returnee community but their families and friends in the United States to its virtual programming,. Attendees at the first meeting of the Poch@ House book club, for instance, logged in from places from San Luis Potosí and Tijuana, in the north of Mexico, to Fresno, California and Charlotte, North Carolina.
On Mother’s Day this year, Mexico’s May 10 holiday coincided with the US’s second-Sunday observance. The holiday is celebrated lavishly in Mexico, and the fact that many members of the deportee and returnee community are separated from either their mothers or their children—or both—can make it emotionally wrenching. ODA’s women’s committee decided to devote its May budget to a virtual celebration of the holiday. The organization turned over its social media to honor those transnational relationships for the day. A member of the community collected photographs of committee members and their mothers, with messages to their mothers such as “you even crossed borders for me” and “aunque estemos lejos, siempre las tengo en mi corazón” (Although we are far away, you are always in my heart). Committee members, their mothers, and their children came together for a brunch over Zoom, with food delivered to participants regardless of the side of the border on which they found themselves.
As the women’s committee members texted their thanks to the member who had made the video, writing with ample weeping emojis how grateful and moved they were, she turned the thanks around. “Solo les quiero decir gracias,” she said. The replacement of real life with Zoom had enabled an important connection for her. “Desde que me vine I haven’t been able to celebrate Mother’s Day with my mom in a super special way and this year I will.”
As the elusive status of citizenship has become one of the many fault lines creating vulnerability in the Covid-19 pandemic, the organizing of deportees and returnees, who have lived most of their lives outside of citizenship and survived the violence that comes from lacking it, has proved invaluable. Mutual aid infrastructure—logistical, financial, and emotional—was already in place in the deportee/returnee community, as many other communities scrambled to figure out how to support one another for the first time.
ICE has explicitly justified its continuing deportations as a strategy for stemming the spread of Covid-19, claiming that its deportation flights are filled with individuals who have attempted to cross in the United States irregularly, “bypass[ing] public health measures.” Yet the agency’s certainty that fortifying its apparatus of exclusion and expulsion will also fortify public health overlooks the ways that this apparatus exacerbates the spread of contagious disease. It overlooks the way that the wildfire spread of Covid-19 within centers of confinement is a risk not only to those held there—who by law must be protected from threats such as pandemics—but also to staff, and to the communities and families they go home to at night. The continuing deportations of individuals who have lived for years in the United States, or who have spent months in detention waiting to be denied asylum, does nothing to prevent Covid-19 from coming into the United States; on the contrary, it has facilitated the virus’s transmission to communities across the globe.
A border militarization strategy cannot be a public health strategy, because Covid-19 does not differentiate between citizens and noncitizens when it crosses borders. A nationalist strategy cannot be a public health strategy, because the space of the nation and the geography of its citizens are not overlapping. There’s no real strategy for stopping the spread of Covid-19 that doesn’t treat migrants and the undocumented and others in vulnerable situations as human beings, that fails to offer them resources, care, and safe places to stay. The abdication of such responsibilities—the continued use of immigration detention and deportation, the United States’ failure to include noncitizens in CARES Act payments, the US and Mexico’s suspension of asylum proceedings—has made the world’s most vulnerable even more so, and endangered everyone in the process. Strategies that take care of the privileged alone have served only to deepen inequality; they have enabled Covid-19 to find not only the weak points in the human body but the weak points in states. Those countries that emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic with lower mortality and less economic devastation will undoubtedly be those that responded from the vantage point of the poor and undocumented.