Posted on December 7, 2020

Coronavirus Patients from Mexico Crossing Border and Straining U.S. Hospitals

Todd Bensman, Center for Immigration Studies, December 4, 2020

In late October, the El Paso television station KFOX-14 aired video of fire department ambulances lining up at the international bridge picking up Covid-19 patients who had just crossed from Mexico and driving them to hospitals, the ones now filled to crisis proportions.

Along with the video footage, the local TV station quoted one of the fire department’s paramedics describing an assembly-line operation where the whole ambulance fleet at times was pressed into transporting Mexicans from the international ports of entry to El Paso hospitals. Projecting one of the nation’s reddest Covid-19 hotspots, El Paso and its filled-beyond-capacity hospitals are now at the epicenter of national news coverage that rarely reflects testimony like this:

“There’s some days where it’s only three or four times and other days when it will be 13 or 14 responses. You’ll be there for one patient and [CBP] customs will let you know, hey there’s another one right behind them and another one. Sometimes there are four or five waiting in line,” the fire department employee explained. {snip}


Mexicans sick with the virus have overrun hospitals in their own cities south of the border since at least May 2020 to the point that Mexican facilities became unable to care for new patients. Left with no care on the Mexico side, unknown but significant numbers of Covid-sick patients with green cards, dual citizenship, or border-crossing cards have exploited legal loopholes in President Trump’s March 2020 emergency closure so they can reach US hospitals. Other ill crossers are American expatriates, while some were Mexican patients illegally crossing outside of the ports of entry.

At issue — in the general national failure to recognize this contribution to the U.S. hospital crisis — is whether American policy-makers might finally consider it when implementing lockdowns, social-distancing requirements, and other local U.S. policies intended to preserve hospital systems in hard-hit border states like Texas. In ordering measures that would only control for local spread that occurred inside the United States — policies that do not, of course, influence spreading behaviors in Mexico — U.S. leaderships risk repeating a consequential public health mistake that occurred during the summer and is underway again.

The Evidence

As early as May, when virus cases began the last major surge in border states, the Washington Postthe New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal all reported that many thousands of infected people from Mexico were fleeing their own collapsing hospitals to facilities in Arizona and California, adding to American counts of hospitalization and deaths.

The publications reported that most appeared to be “essential workers” with visas or border-crossing cards, American expatriates, dual citizenship holders, and Mexican legal permanent residents allowed to cross under the Trump border closure exemptions. Border Patrol sources said many other infected patients had entered illegally and that agents often transported them to U.S. hospitals. From the border, they were moved into the American interior.


June 29 CNN report seemed to be the first to report Mexican-to-American ambulance hand-off operations like the one more recently described in El Paso. The CNN story quoted Carmela Coyle, CEO of the California Hospital Association, calling what was underway as “an unprecedented surge across the border”. It also quoted California’s emergency medical services authority head Dr. David Duncan describing “the steady stream” coming into Imperial County as “gas on the fire” that will “continue to escalate and fuel the Covid pressures that we see.”

At about the same time, Covid patients overwhelmed almost every hospital along the Texas border after hospitals collapsed in Matamoros across from Brownsville, in Reynosa across from McAllen, in Nuevo Laredo across from Laredo, and in Juarez across from El Paso. Texas A&M University’s Transportation Institute saw the problem as so pronounced that it proposed a plan for Mexican ambulances to cut to the front of long lines at ports of entry so that Covid-19 patients could reach American hospitals faster.


Flashing forward to the new outbreak making national headlines, almost every hallmark of Covid-19 medical migration from Mexico is once again evident in El Paso and elsewhere along the border. {snip}


A Federal Solution, Not for Cities or States

An enabling factor for all of this is the president’s March 2020 border closure. It only prohibits inbound crossings by those traveling “for tourism purposes, such as sightseeing, recreation, gambling or attending cultural events”. Everyone else, including “individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States)”, is pretty much free to cross at will with a variety of visa types.