The Unique Struggle of Asian & Vulnerable Communities in the Mexico-US Borderlands in the Face of a Global Pandemic

A passenger wearing a protective masks looks on after arriving at Mexico City airport on March 13, 2020 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

The calamity of the coronavirus pandemic has demonstrated how racism and inequality thrive alongside capitalism.

Impoverished and racialized communities continue to be neglected despite the non-discriminatory, all-affecting nature of this public health crisis. While there have been widespread calls for self-quarantining and social distancing measures put in place to contain the spread of the virus, many vulnerable, low-income workers do not have the privilege of staying home and instead opt to put their health on the line for fear of suffering from wage loss or being laid-off by their employers. Furthermore, ICE continues to arrest immigrants for deportation proceedings despite state lockdowns, significantly limiting the ability of undocumented immigrants to seek healthcare or even buy hygienic products to protect themselves.

In addition, the public health crisis is naturally aggravated at the Mexico-U.S. borderlands, where immigrants experience compounded violence—including racialization, neglect, and structural inequalities—from two different nations.

As stores in the U.S. are completely depleted, U.S. residents are traveling to Mexican border cities to stock up on hygienic products and toilet paper, leaving low-income Mexican workers— the vast majority who earn 23.22 pesos, or about $6.53 a day with limited options to protect themselves. In recent days, the value of the Mexican peso fell to a record low of approximately 23 pesos to the U.S. dollar, which may make everyday life, including access to health care services, significantly more expensive for impoverished Mexican residents. Plus, deported migrants and asylum seekers stranded in Mexico under the “Remain in Mexico” policy are significantly more at risk of contracting the virus, particularly because most of them are also homeless or reside in insecure, overcrowded migrant shelters.

Sadly, Chinese communities in Mexican border cities have also been victims of discrimination. On Sunday, images of coronavirus piñatas in Tijuana made the rounds on Twitter, depicting piñatas in the form of the coronavirus with a racist image of an Asian individual in the middle.

Chinese residents are the second-largest foreign population in cities like Tijuana and Mexicali. Despite that fact, Chinese residents in Mexico have historically been victims of racism and xenophobia. Racist representations as such only exacerbate the issue. Plus, they give Mexican politicians—who have largely responded to the pandemic with mockery and a “business as usual ”attitude—an out. Rather than pushing leadership to enact proper public health measures to prevent the virus from spreading, racist representations as such shifts the blame onto a group that already suffers from racism at the global level. In the U.S., there have also been racist responses to the coronavirus outbreak as Trump supporters blame immigrants and continue to call for the expansion of the border wall. 

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has faced significant criticism for continuing to hold rallies and his response of indifference towards the ongoing crisis. Earlier in March, Mexico’s Health Minister, Hugo López-Gatell, called on the Mexican government to shut down its border with the U.S. to prevent the virus from spreading into Mexico. That would have been catastrophic for transborder families and workers who rely on crossing the border regularly into the U.S. for education, commerce, or work.  It could have separated families, as well.

However, after assessing the economic impact of border closure, Mexico issued a contradictory response: they would not close its border but all European travelers en route to the U.S. will have to stay in Mexico for 14 days before heading to their final destination. After significant international pressure, Mexico has officially called for  “healthy distance measures until the arbitrary date of April 20, 2020. However, Tijuana has very limited capacity and medical infrastructure to test individuals who believe they may be carrying the virus—further aggravating the paranoia and psychological distress of not having adequate resources for impoverished and migrant communities in Mexico.

In many ways, the pandemic is bringing either the best in us, such as re-thinking and challenging our relationship to oppressive systems such as capitalism, or the worst of us, such as stigmatizing racialized groups and profiting from a global tragedy. Now more than ever, it’s crucial to make decisions based on how our actions will impact others who are more vulnerable, mobilize for universal healthcare in the U.S., and engage in cross-border solidarity efforts to support impoverished communities—particularly immigrants—in the Mexico-U.S. borderlands.