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LATEST UPDATES: Racial Justice | Tracking COVID-19 (coronavirus)

Pandemic As Pretext

Cover image for podcast episode

Doctor Hannah Janeway volunteers at a Refugee Health Alliance clinic in Tijuana.

Photo By David Monroy

The perception that the U.S.-Mexico border’s been effectively sealed shut because of the pandemic is wrong.

Lots of people are still crossing.

Actually, the biggest, most dramatic change in who can’t cross right now; you’re not going to find those folks at the ports of entry.

Instead, you have to look inside Tijuana’s migrant shelters, and at the refugees who can’t seek asylum in the U.S. right now and are instead stuck in border towns.

So that's what we do today. We talk to a migrant stuck at the border, and a doctor trying to help.

About the Show:
“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.

Who's behind the show:
Host Alan Lilienthal, producer Kinsee Morlan and sound designer Emily Jankowski

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https://www.facebook.com/onlyherepodcast/
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https://www.kpbs.org/donate

Give us Feedback:
619-452-0228‬
podcasts@kpbs.org

Just a few of the nonprofits working with migrants in Tijuana:
https://www.refugeehealthalliance.org/
https://alotrolado.org/
https://haitianbridge.org/
https://www.instagram.com/temploembajadoresdejesus/
https://www.facebook.com/EspacioMigranteOrg/

Title: Pandemic As Pretext

When the pandemic hit, the federal government did something extreme.

NEWS CLIP https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcUia_fr1wc

It sounded like the Canadian and Mexican borders were being almost completely closed. Only “essential travel” was supposed to happen.

So...when I first heard the news, I completely stopped crossing. Almost everyone did.

But as weeks dragged on, more and more people decided to roll the dice and try to cross.

And pretty quickly, most of us realized we could cross -- just as easily as before. The travel restrictions aren’t actually very restrictive.

So by April….

BORDER LINE NAT

The slumbering border beast awakened.

BORDER LINE NAT

BEAT

So yeah...the national perception that the border’s been effectively sealed shut because of the pandemic? It’s just way wrong.

Actually, the biggest, most dramatic change in who can’t cross right now….

You’re not gonna find those folks at the ports of entry.

News clip

Instead, you have to look to Tijuana’s migrant shelters…

To the refugees who can’t seek asylum in the U.S. right now and are stuck at the border.

And the people who are scrambling to help them survive.

BEAT
Today, we’re talking to two women whose lives at the border have been upended by the pandemic.
Asylum Interview Delia Clip 1
We’re here cuz we dont know where else to go - without jobs, without money - we really cant do anything except wait.
Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 8
So I'm in the clinic right now. Just getting some medication for a patient. Looks like he has a tooth infection. So….
BEAT
I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to “Only Here,” a KPBS podcast about life at the U.S.-Mexico border.

MIDROLL 1

Hannah Audio Diary Clip 1
So it was just a leaving work here at olive view medical center. This is one of the emergency departments where I work in Los Angeles.
Hannah Audio Diary Clip 2 Heading To Tijuana
I'm heading into my car through the parking lot in our MRI camper to start my journey down to Tijuana
For people like doctor Hannah Janeway… The border was never closed. The pandemic has actually made her trips to Tijuana even more necessary than ever. We asked her to record herself on her phone as she made the trip one day in May.
Hannah Audio Diary Clip 4
I'm just getting in my car now in the parking lot of Olive view. Finally get to take off this mask. So the trip to, oh it’s hot today.. [CUT SECOND HALF OF CLIP HERE]
Hannah’s an emergency room doctor in LA. So, most months, she spends a week or so working at a few different emergency rooms there.

Then, the following week, she drives to Tijuana so she can volunteer at health clinics for migrants.
Hannah Audio Diary Clip 4
...So the trip to Tijuana from my house usually takes about two hours and 15 minutes when there's no traffic
BEAT
Asylum Interview Delia Clip 2
Alan and Delia getting ready for interview...
Delia is currently quarantined at a shelter for migrants in Tijuana with her husband, two of her daughters and grandson.

Asylum Interview Delia Clip 3
Clip talking about her family

Delia says her family left behind their pig farm in Guerrero after her daughter’s ex-boyfriend grew increasingly aggressive.

So, look...we can’t fact check Delia’s story. We’re taking it at face value, but her story is so similar to lots of stories from migrants….and nothing she said gave us doubt.

Asylum Interview Delia Clip 4
Clip talking about the cartel connection.

Delia says her daughter was dating a man who was involved with one of the big Mexican drug cartels. We’re not using Delia’s last name or the name of the shelter where she’s staying to protect her from the cartel’s reach.

Delia says the boyfriend started physically and sexually abusing her daughter…

At one point, he threatened to kill her and her whole family.

Asylum Interview Delia Clip 5
Clip talking about how her daughter would often come home with bruises and other wounds and would tell Delia she fell or had some kind of accident.

Eventually, things got so bad, Delia says her daughter tried to kill herself by overdosing on pills.

They got her to the hospital after finding her unconscious.

She just barely survived.

Asylum Interview Delia Clip 6
Delia very much attributes all this to God.

Delia sent her daughter to Guadalajara after the suicide attempt.

She thought she’d be safe there. But she says the boyfriend found her daughter and forced her to go back to Guerrero with him.

That was it. That was the moment they knew they had to flee.

Asylum Interview Delia Clip 7
They decided to leave.

The family left in the middle of the night…

Delia says they got on a plane to Tijuana and they left so quickly that they had to leave almost everything they owned behind.

She was able to sell a few of the pigs off before they left, but the rest got left trapped in their pins.

She assumes most of the pigs are gone now. Muertos.

Asylum Interview Delia Clip 8
The pigs have no one to care for them

When the family arrived in Tijuana, they went straight to the port of entry without having any idea how the asylum process works.

From there, they were sent to a different office where they were put into the system and given a number. She says they weren’t given a date to return.

Her husband has called back several times.

Each time, they say they can’t give him a return date or any other information right now.

The officials are telling them they’ll just have to keep waiting.

Asylum Delia Clip 9
Nothing nothing, there’s no news of when it will be over or when they’ll start giving asylum and letting people through.

Hannahti Audio Diary Clip 3
Today, actually my journey is going to be partially interrupted by a stop in Long Beach, where. I'm going to be working or helping to volunteer as a street medic for the black lives matter protest. And then when that finishes, I'll be headed down to Tijuana.

BEAT/TRANSITION
Hannah is in her 30s. Her hair is mostly cut short, but a mop of curls spills down from atop her head.

She spent a lot of her college years studying abroad in Latin America, so she speaks perfect Spanish and loves Latin culture.

Hannah is now one of the medical professionals behind the Refugee Health Alliance.

And Delia is part of the population of migrants in Tijuana who Hannah serves..
BEAT
Hannah Audio Diary Clip 5
So it's now 8:25 PM. I just got back to my car and I'm headed to the freeway in long beach. I spent the last few hours at the protest, um, providing medical aid and standing. On the front line, trying to prevent the police from escalating their level of violence with protests. Mmm. But things were getting increasingly violent and I have to make it down to the border. So I decided to leave one of my colleagues. Who's also an emergency medicine doctor and who was with me and ended up getting shot by a rubber bullet and has a big, huge Weldon his rest, but he's okay. And we treated a bunch of other people with minor. Wounds and injuries that we saw. Um, so I'm hoping that everyone else stays safe, but I have to make it down to the border tonight because I have to be at our clinic tomorrow.
The Refugee Alliance is a young nonprofit that sprung up in Tijuana to meet the medical needs of the recent influx of migrants seeking asylum…

Over the last few years, lots of people from Central America and elsewhere have been showing up here at the border with dreams of finding safety in the U.S.

But they’ve been getting stuck in Tijuana and other Mexican border towns.

And many of them depend on Hannah and an army of volunteers like her for their safety and really..for their very survival.
Hannah Audio Diary Clip 6
So I'm about halfway there. I'm making a pit stop at a supermarket to buy some things that we need for the clinic, um, and to grab a bite to eat.Uh, it's funny about five minutes ago, I passed a sign on the freeway that said that travel across the US-Mexico border is limited, which is certainly not the case.
So yeah, like I said earlier, the border is NOT closed the way most people think.

But at the same time...it is closed to this one set of very vulnerable people…

To be very clear: The biggest impact of the pandemic at the border has been on migrants seeking asylum.
*******Hannah interview Clip 16
People have been trapped at the border for, you know, up to two years, they come, then they're metered, they're waiting for their number. They cross, they get sent back under MPP. You know, all those things are like over a year and a half generally. And so we were already kind of doing that. I think this is extending people's stays. So we're doing that even more.
Hannah interview Clip 19
The shelters are crowded and you know, you're sleeping in a tent on the floor many times, or there's other, you know, there's bed bugs and there's scabies, and it's just not a, not a place that you really want to be for any longer than you absolutely need to be.
Hannah interview Clip 20
Once COVID arrives, everyone in the shelter is going to get it.

BEAT

Time for a break.

When we come back, Hannah takes us inside the Tijuana clinic that provides healthcare for people like Delia and her family...people stuck in asylum purgatory.

MIDROLL 2

Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 1
So it's day two of the clinic, just putting on my shoes. They have to come off when I, right when I enter the house, because I don't know what I'm trampling in from the clinic and with all the COVID stuff going on….
Hannah and the other US physicians behind the Refugee Health Alliance are all unpaid volunteers.
The nonprofit launched when the first big migrant caravan from Central America showed up in Tijuana in 2018.
Migrant camps were popping up at the border and the Mexican government was just completely overwhelmed.
The need for medical care was clear.
So, the group of friends grew the nonprofit and eventually opened clinics in Tijuana.
But migrant numbers and needs just keep growing and growing.
Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 3
So I'm in the clinic right now. Just getting some medication for a patient. Looks like he has a tooth infection. So him from antibiotics and pain people, and then getting him set up with our local dentists, wonderfully volunteered his time to see our patients. The tooth is probably going to have to be taken out, um, because it has a huge cavity in it.
BEAT
Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 9
[speaking in Spanish]....fade out before it gets too confusing with the medical jargon

BEAT
The Trump administration has, over the past four years, chipped away at the asylum system…
Making it harder and harder for anyone to get through it.
In the past…
If you showed up from another country claiming you feared for your life and the asylum agent believed you...then you had a shot at getting into the U.S.
It was a difficult and slow process, but it was a process. And people waited for it to play out while in the U.S.
But one huge shift has been the Remain-In-Mexico program.
When that went into place, asylum-seekers from Central America were sent back to Mexico to wait for their case to make its way through the system.
But then in March the U.S. started turning back every asylum seeker, regardless of where they came from. Within a few hours of presenting themselves at the border, almost every migrant is now being sent back to Mexico.
The Department of Homeland Security said the new protocol is an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
Then in June, the Trump Administration proposed even more changes to the system. The changes include a slew of obstacles that would make it even more difficult for anyone to get asylum.
Also...the Supreme Court just dealt asylum seekers a harsh blow.
NEWS CLIP
All those recent changes have effectively ended asylum in the U.S….and no one is sure when or if the system will open back up.
So now, with thousands of migrants stuck in limbo at the border…
The web of nonprofits that serve them are just totally scrambling….
BEAT
The NGOs that have historically focused on things like healthcare or legal help ….they’ve been forced to pivot.
Since right now there’s no real asylum system to navigate, lots of these nonprofits are instead providing food, clothes and other emergency humanitarian relief.
Doing everything they can to help meet people’s most basic needs.
Hannah’s clinic has even started serving food, because patients were showing up hungry.
*****Hannah interview Clip 17
There's a huge community, always in Tijuana of refugees and migrants and deportees who had apartments, but were just barely making it. And when COVID started, they all lost their jobs. And a lot of them have been getting kicked out of their apartments or don't have money to pay for food. And so we've started to provide food at our clinic three days a week.
Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 4
Speaking in Spanish...one of the patients that I saw today was a man who got beat up by someone. He got jumped and had a large head laceration and also probably broke. Um, a metacarpal bone, not sure which, so I'm sending him for an extra day, but I'm just putting a splint on him cause he's homeless. And I don't know if he's going to be able to come back right away
Also....because of COVID, it’s not just migrants Hannah is helping.
Tijuanenses who can’t get what they need at hospitals overwhelmed by the virus have started showing up at their doors.
BEAT
Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 5
Other patients that I've seen today, we have a, another gentleman who is paralyzed and has a bunch of sacral, decubitus ulcers, and no one's helping him take care of them. And, uh, I saw a gentlemen who had been attacked by a dog. Um, and I saw a gentleman who just had like a dry cough, so all of them i sent out on their way and had a little break in the patients. So just decided to go get those tacos. Cause I did eat them starving.
BEAT
DELIA CLIP 9 OPTION 2
We live here day to day, with fear that they'll arrive here. That they'll take her and us too and kill us.
It’s been four months since Delia and her family got off that plane from Guerrero.
Right now, the family’s trying to find someone to help them sell the ranch so they can at least have some more money to keep feeding the family.

Delia is hopeful that once the pandemic problems slow down, the asylum system will open back up.

But she says the weight of the uncertainty is a lot to carry.

Assylum Delia Clip 10
She’s hopeful, but it’s a lot.

Delia says going home is out of the question. It’s just too dangerous.

And even here, in Tijuana, she says she fears for her family’s safety.

She knows the cartel’s reach, and she thinks it’s only a matter of time before her daughter’s ex-boyfriend tracks them down.

Asylum Delia Clip 11
Needs to get to the U.S.

Delia says getting into the U.S. is their only hope..the only way to keep her family safe.

*****Hannah interview Clip 18
I feel like that's the only thing that they can have right now, you know? I mean, what else are they to do? Other than have hoped that the border will reopen. I mean, many of them cannot go back to where they came from. The vast majority have serious threats to their lives. Um, and are even in Tijuana have serious threats to their lives, given the cooperation between cartels and different areas of central America. And so, you know, they can't go back and so. You know, I think the only thing that they can really hope for is that the asylum process will get opened up again.
BEAT
Lots of people like Hannah...people paying attention to the migrant crisis at the border…

They say the Trump Administration is using the pandemic as pretext.

They don’t think shutting down the asylum system is actually an effort to protect public health.

Instead, they say the president has always wanted to close the door to people from outside the U.S.

And that the pandemic has finally given him an excuse to shut that door.

BEAT

Hannah says most people she talks to who are stuck in this nightmarish limbo are still hopeful, like Delia, that things will eventually reopen and they’ll be on their way to the U.S.

But in the meantime, many of the migrants will have to continue depending on people like Hannah and the rest of the volunteers in Tijuana..

And people like Hannah will keep doing what they’re doing...working hard to help these migrants stay safe, healthy and alive.

BEAT/PAUSE?
Hannah Audio Diaries In Tijuana Clip 7
For the last few weeks, we've been able to house sit or more likely a wonderful person in San Diego donated her apartment to us. So instead of living kind of in the middle of the city where I normally live, uh, she actually let us live, stay in our apartment right on the water. People are surfing out there. Pretty beautiful. It's really nice. I have to say after like a long day of work to come home and see something like that…. privilege that I don't normally get. Now it's just to do some more work, um, finish up a few things from clinic and have a whole nother day ahead of us.
A FEW BEATS
For more information about the Refugee Health Alliance, check out refugee health alliance dot org. There are lots of shelters in Tijuana and other nonprofits that are always looking for help...volunteers, money, supplies...all kinds of things. Check our show notes for some links.
BEAT
Only Here is produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is our director of sound design. Curtis Fox is our editor. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming.
And hey, we love hearing from you. Right now, we’re looking for border stories about how the pandemic has impacted you. Give us a call at (619) 452-0228‬ and leave a voicemail. Tell us who you are, where you live and how COVID-19 has changed the way you live your life at the border. Again, the number is (619) 452-0228‬.
I’m Alan Lilienthal. Thanks for listening.

Nonprofits working with migrants in Tijuana:
https://www.refugeehealthalliance.org/
https://alotrolado.org/
https://haitianbridge.org/
https://www.instagram.com/temploembajadoresdejesus/
https://www.facebook.com/EspacioMigranteOrg/

Only Here podcast branding

Only Here

“Only Here” is about the unexplored subcultures, creativity and struggles at the U.S.-Mexico border. The KPBS podcast tells personal stories from people whose lives are shaped by the tension reverberating around the wall. This is a show for border babies, urban explorers or those who wonder what happens when two cultures are both separated and intertwined.