In summary

The U.S.-Mexico border closed to nonessential travel last month to help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. But the closure is cutting off many Mexicans and Mexican-Americans from relatives — and home.  

With the closure of the U.S. southern border due to the pandemic, many Mexicans and Mexican Americans in California are physically cut off from home or family, while others contend with indefinite pauses in deportation or residency cases.

Brenda Martinez, a 19-year-old Hartnell College student who plans to study nursing, said if the border closure is extended for months, she won’t be able to see her mother and siblings this year. 

Martinez moved to Monterey County from Mexico to live with her father four years ago, after he and her mother divorced. Her biannual visits are the only times she gets to see her mother, brother and sister.

She was just talking with her mother about booking a flight to Mexico to stay for a few months longer, since her classes are being held online and her shifts at the Sand City Ross Dress For Less have been canceled due to the shelter-in-place order.

“I always go in the summer to visit,” Martinez said. “Now, I might not see them for a year.”

‘If I’m alive, that’s fine’

A customer walks in front of Lupita’s Bakery on March 31, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian.

On March 19, President Donald Trump announced the U.S.-Mexico border will be closed to nonessential travel to further help stem the spread of the novel coronavirus. Essential travel includes traveling for medical purposes, attending educational institutions, for emergency response or public health purposes and lawful cross-border trade. 

On March 31, there were more than 1,000 coronavirus cases in Mexico, according to Johns Hopkins University data. On March 25, it was just over 400 cases.

According to the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think-tank, roughly 11.3 million Mexicans live in the United States. Mexican immigrants make up the largest foreign-born group in the country and accounted for 25% of the 44.5 million immigrants in the U.S. in 2017.

Salinas-based immigration attorney Blanca Zarazúa said the COVID-19 pandemic has panicked people in the process of dealing with a deportation order or obtaining residency or citizenship visas. That process, while slowed, has not stopped, she said.

“This is terrible,” said Zarazúa. “I had one client who…called my assistant 12 times, then he called again. I emailed him. I said, please, have faith in me. You don’t have to show up, (the courts are) going to be closed. I think people are in a heightened level of fear.”

For those who aren’t detained, their deportation hearings have been postponed, while cases of those in detention are still moving forward via video conferencing. 

“I’ve had a hearing on asylum cases has been extended to November 2021,” said Zarazúa. “That’s fine, if I’m alive. The backlog is going to be crazy.”

It hasn’t had too much impact on locals traveling to Mexico, though, as this is not a popular time of year to travel, she said.

“I don’t think there are that many people who were traveling to Mexico, anyway,” said Zarazúa. “I think there are more people who were stuck over there who can’t come back in, but I don’t think there’s that many. Even if they could have gone (for Easter), things are being suspended in Mexico. There wouldn’t have been much to go to.

“But there are people stranded,” she said.

‘Sofocante, como triste’

Norcal harvesting fieldworkers pick strawberries early morning on March 31, 2020.
Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian.

Response to the border closure is mixed. 

Zenaida Flores, a part-owner of Jimenez Fashions Clothing Store in Seaside, sat at a counter at the back of the store, past mannequins wearing sequined dresses, and jeans showcased on coat hangers. 

Even though she has family in Mexico, the border closure doesn’t affect her, she said. 

“En este momento no les voy a ver,” said Flores. “No pensamos ir de momento.” (Right now, I have no plans to visit them, she said. We’re not planning on going at the moment.)

One store down from Jimenez Fashions sits Lupita’s Bakery, a father-son bakery in Seaside. Inside, Mexican baked goods lined glass cases. The entire bakery smelled of bread and fruit, and the soundtrack from “Coco” played over the speakers.

A sign on the door asked that only six customers occupy the bakery at a time. Next to the ubiquitous trays and tongs stacked at the front of the store sat a large bottle of green-tinted hand sanitizer.

Alan Morales, the son half of the father-son team, said his father took a trip down to Mexico over the winter and came back to California just a few weeks before Trump announced the closure. He was glad his father wasn’t stuck on the other side of the crossing, he said.

But he wasn’t too worried about the what-ifs, he said. 

“We haven’t had that conversation,” Morales said.

Edwin Joel Perez has worked as a berry picker in Salinas for two years. Although he is originally from El Salvador, south of Mexico, he called the border closure “sofocante, como triste.” It’s suffocating, he said. He can’t return to El Salvador with his family. 

“No puede pasar la gente por El Salvador,” said Perez. “Si quieren pasar las detienen en la frontera.” No one can go to El Salvador, he said. If they try to enter, they detain them at the border.

For the greater good

Lupita’s bakery located in Seaside, Calif on March 31, 2020. Photo by David Rodriguez, The Salinas Californian.

In recent days and weeks, Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has encouraged his citizens to “live life as normal.”

While many Latin American countries have taken aggressive measures to deal with the coronavirus, such as closing to foreigners and declaring states of emergencies, Mexico has only started to roll out half-measures, the Associated Press reported.

Obrador and his government pushed off a shutdown until late March, saying it would disproportionately hurt poor people and be a psychological weight on all Mexicans. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, maintaining a physical distance of six feet or more from those you do not live with is key to helping stop the spread of the coronavirus.

But López Obrador continued to attend mass public rallies, shaking hands and kissing babies. Asked how he was protecting Mexico, he removed two religious amulets from his wallet and proudly showed them off, the Associated Press reported in a mid-March article.

“The protective shield is the ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,'” López Obrador said, reading off the inscription on the amulet, “Stop, enemy, for the Heart of Jesus is with me.”

In just six days, Mexico’s numbers of positive coronavirus cases more than doubled, according to the Johns Hopkins data.

“I think President López Obrador is trying to project confidence and minimize the risk,” said Jesus Silva-Herzog, a political commentator and professor at the Tecnológico de Monterrey University. But, he added, “I think that what he has wound up doing is minimizing the risks associated with the emergency, and sending messages that contradict what is being said almost everywhere else.”

Mexico has only 5,000 emergency beds and about 1,500 intensive care or sealed rooms for a population of over 125 million.

If numbers keep rising, Mexico could face similar challenges managing hospital overflow and personal protective equipment shortages that Italy, China and the U.S. are facing. 

Salinas farmworker Cruz Santiago said it was sad that so many people can’t see their families, especially during an international pandemic.

But, she said, it’s for the greater good, even if it is upsetting.

“Con todo que está pasando, es también para el bien de los demás, sí, aunque está triste,” she said.

David Rodriguez, USA Today and the Associated Press contributed to this article. 

Kate Cimini is a journalist for The Californian. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Kate Cimini is a reporter with the Salinas Californian and CalMatters' California Divide project. She covers economic inequality, agriculture, and housing. Previously, she covered national security, natural...