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Shutdown of U.S.-Mexico border leaves migrants in limbo and in danger

President Trump recently announced strict new border controls, citing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. Officials will now turn away most migrants entering the country from the U.S.-Mexico border -- including people coming legally and fleeing violence. Jean Guerrero of KPBS spoke to families stuck in limbo at the country’s busiest land border crossing, just south of San Diego in Tijuana.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now for a look outside the U.S.

    Last week, President Trump announced strict new border controls, citing concerns over the coronavirus. Officials will now turn away most migrants entering the country from the southern border.

    That includes people fleeing violence, even if they come legally and show no signs of being sick.

    Jean Guerrero of member station KPBS spoke to families stuck in limbo at the country's busiest land border crossing just south of San Diego in Tijuana.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    This family from Michoacan, Mexico wants to ask for asylum in the U.S.

    Last week, after seven months on an asylum wait list, it was finally their turn to enter and start pleading their case. But when they came to the port of entry, they learned the border had been shut down because of the coronavirus. They asked us to hide their identities for safety reasons.

  • Woman (through translator):

    We're fleeing a place where you can't really live. They extort you, and if you don't pay, they kill you.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Ana has pictures of her house from when she says it was riddled with bullets and marks on her body from when she was beaten by the local gang.

  • Ana (through translator):

    The virus worries me because of my health. But what worries me much more is what I have experienced. We are truly in danger in Mexico.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    She has audio of when she says the gang broke into her house and threatened her.

    The family and tens of thousands want refuge, but they're stuck in Mexico. It's unclear when the port will reopen. Lines at the once-bustling port dwindled drastically after the U.S. banned nonessential travel at the border last week, in addition to the ban on everyone without U.S. documents.

    Tens of thousands of people normally cross daily to work and shop.

    Paola Avila of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce says the impact on workers will be severe, but that the halted traffic is necessary.

  • Paola Avila:

    People are going to lose jobs. Our businesses are going to suffer from that, from that halt, but it's something that we have to contribute.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Vulnerable families fleeing death threats could be the most affected. Some jump the border wall out of desperation. President Trump says new restrictions are meant to prevent an outbreak in border stations and beyond.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Our nation's top health care officials are extremely concerned about the great public health consequences of mass uncontrolled cross-border movement.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Tijuana migrant shelters are scrambling to keep up with the need for beds.

    Casa del Migrante's director, Father Pat Murphy, rolled out new rules to try to prevent an outbreak.

  • Father Pat Murphy:

    So, one of the decisions we made is to put less people in each room. Instead of 10, there are five, so they can be a little separated.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Migrants' hands are sanitized each time they enter, and a doctor will soon be checking temperatures every day. The shelter is reducing intake to 80 people, half its usual capacity, to keep people spread out.

    Murphy is worried he and others could get the virus.

  • Father Pat Murphy:

    I'm 68. And I shouldn't even be down here. I should be up in my room the next two months. But my heart doesn't let me do that.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    Here, asylum seekers have a place to eat and feel safe until it's their turn to enter the U.S.

    But the shelter doesn't have room for everyone. Many sleep on the street, where they're exposed to cartel violence. Others stay in cramped tents, where it's hard to protect themselves from getting sick. Murphy says the Trump administration is using the coronavirus to push a political agenda and hurt some of the world's most vulnerable people.

  • Father Pat Murphy:

    He's taking advantage of this situation to take away the few rights that people have left to ask for political asylum. He has no idea the suffering.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    But the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Chad Wolf, says the decision to turn these people away is based on input from the nation's top health leaders at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • Chad Wolf:

    The CDC director has determined that the introduction and spread of the coronavirus in the department's Border Patrol stations and detention facilities presents a serious danger to migrants, our front-line agents and officers and the American people.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    But while the U.S. has more than 75,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, Mexico has about 500.

    This private cross-border health care provider helped set up checkpoints in Tijuana a short walk from the U.S. to give free coronavirus symptom screenings.

    Ricardo Vega, president of the Baja Health Cluster, says they want to prevent the spread in Mexico, including among migrants, where the risk is particularly high due to unsanitary, crowded conditions.

  • Ricardo Vega:

    They are confined in places we know they don't have enough toilets or enough flushing water or separate spaces.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    At one shelter, a Guatemalan asylum seeker with three children faced an uncertain future.

  • Woman (through translator):

    I never wanted to leave my country. I never wanted to expose my kids to so much danger.

  • Jean Guerrero:

    But she says she had no choice; the people threatening to kill her family in Guatemala were scarier than the coronavirus.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jean Guerrero in Tijuana.

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