A conversation with a friend on the frontlinesInterview Reportage
I met Isaac Bencomo at a coffee shop in El Paso during my stay there last Fall. Both interested in migration and health, we quickly fell into an easy conversation that turned into a friendship.
I noticed first-hand how dedicated Isaac is to his job as a registered nurse, working in pediatric ER on the U.S. side of the border and volunteering with migrants both in El Paso,Texas and Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. He goes beyond the sole act of treating patients, seeking to bring dignity and warmth to people so often treated as less-than by authorities. When I moved back to Montreal, we stayed in touch through his move to San Antonio and his new involvement with migrants in Matamoros in the Rio Grande Valley.
When the severity of the coronavirus pandemic sank in, one of the first people I reached out to was Isaac. He spends his days — and nights — on the frontline and I knew that his profoundly giving and generous nature would lead him to seek involvement with first-line care rather than stay back and wait. But I also reached out because I was concerned with something else. With the U.S.-Mexico border closing to non-essential travel, what would happen to migrants waiting in camps along the border for their immigration hearings? Who would care for them? Would they even be cared for?
Through our discussion, Isaac confirmed what I expected: healthcare access for migrants, even in a pandemic, is hard and must be fought for. Prior to the outbreak, doctors and nurses from all over the United States (Pennsylvania, Texas, and California to name a few) gathered and met in Brownsville, Texas for stretches of volunteering on the other side of the border — serving and caring for thousands of migrants stranded and waiting.
A typical day would begin with volunteers – eight to 15 depending on the day – gathering near the port of entry, downtown Brownsville. From there, they made their way to the camp, located on the eastern side of the international bridge, at the banks of the Rio Grande River, where anywhere between 2000 and 2500 migrants wait for their immigration hearings.
Once there, they would meet with Dr. Dairon Elisondo, a leading Cuban physician and asylum seeker, and set up the clinic: one permanent RV with lab testing and an examination room; one ultrasound room with a dedicated OB/GYN; one pharmacy; and a children’s play area. At 10am all needed to be ready for the first patients – and so the day went on until 4pm when all needed to be put away, ready for the next day as the team made its way back to U.S. soil. On a normal day, around 40-50 patients could be seen, ranging in age from three months to their late fifties.
While direct care was the priority, when time allowed it the team would go around the camp, educating the community on sanitation and good health practices through workshops on handwashing and personal hygiene. Through their dedication to the well-being of migrant populations, the team instigated conversations and practices that may prove to be crucial in the next few weeks as camps brace themselves and prepare for COVID-19. Common complaints that are treated by the team involve respiratory tract infections (cough and congestion) that may make migrants more vulnerable.
Since the outbreak and the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border to non-essential travel, as well as the imposition of stay-at-home orders by most U.S. states, ensuring care for migrants in the borderlands has become harder. While the organization behind these volunteer mission in Matamoros, Global Response Management, was able to secure a special authorization to ensure that healthcare workers could cross the border and provide care, Isaac said in our interview that "given the uncertainties and nature of our work, the risk of travel is surely off-putting many volunteers who might have otherwise contributed to our efforts."
Furthermore, aside from individuals willing to travel and volunteer, healthcare workers need support and resources — masks, gloves, tests — to protect themselves and patients, and successfully care for vulnerable populations.
However, you can gather as many healthcare workers as possible at the border and the challenges for migrants will remain, as they are systemic and material.
Migrants are living in unsanitary conditions, with limited access to food and water. Volunteers and medical teams are faced with a shortage of medications and lack access to specialized care where they could refer their patients, including intensive care wards. Being undocumented in the midst of a pandemic highlights the failures of transit and host states in protecting the right for all to basic healthcare and access without fear.
For Isaac, this pandemic highlights the need to strengthen global collaboration and institutions and invest in global health to better respond to future challenges. His last words during our discussion brought me back to that first shared coffee — that now seems so far away in time — where we sat, both of us indignant at how migrants are being treated as less-than human by governments: "There is no doubt COVID-19 will ravage the most vulnerable, those without a voice, migrants, and refugees who will be left to sit and wait to be silent victims yet again."
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