The Dominoes Will Fall the Hardest

Around the world, tens of millions of people are without work, over a million have been infected with COVID-19 and tens of thousands have died.

As the virus spreads to communities with even fewer resources to respond — communities we are led to believe are “the other” — it will all get worse.

The Rio Grande Valley of Texas offers a glimpse of what could lie ahead.

The RGV includes nearly 1.4 million people, stretching over 4,800 square miles, including Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron and Willacy counties and the cities of Brownsville, McAllen, Harlingen and Edinburg.

Vianovo’s Billy Moore, working with elected officials and business leaders throughout the RGV, told me that for the region’s residents, on either side of the border, “The relationship is much more with the river than the rest of the country.” While NAFTA/USMCA changed things, the RGV has long seen itself as isolated from Texas, much less the United States and Mexico.

It is a sense of isolation that cuts both ways.

Because unless you have visited, or your business is tied to the tens of billions of dollars of trade through the region, the RGV feels wholly separate from the US. Particularly when so much of our immigration debate defines the region through punitive border enforcement and draconian migration policies. For many, the RGV feels far away and dangerous.

Writing for ProPublica, Lomi Kriel and Jeremy Schwartz describe the RGV as having, “among the highest poverty rates in the state, nearly half of its residents don’t have health insurance and chronic health conditions are rife.” Furthermore, “one in ten of the state’s undocumented population lives in the region.”

With testing capacity slow to move to the region, Kriel and Schwartz cite a University of Texas at Austin model that showed that, “overall cases could reach between roughly 95,000 and 335,000 combined in the metro areas of Laredo, Brownsville and McAllen.”

An estimate that does not account for the half a million people in the RGV living in over 900 rural colonias, “predominantly Latino, unincorporated, and impoverished areas,” with limited healthcare services and other basic necessities.

And, keep in mind that just across the river, where so many work and family networks extend, are thousands of migrants living in camps waiting to apply for protection in the US.

At this early juncture in the spread of the virus through the region, Dina Arévalo reports, “the majority of people testing positive in the region are young, and the Valley’s cultural penchant for close interaction among extended family is making things worse.”

Keep in mind the closing of nonessential border traffic, while necessary from a public health perspective, is going to devastate an economy that thrives on the integrated nature of the border region. From a precipitous drop in retail on the US side of the border, to maquiladoras’ closing production on the Mexico side, municipal budgets will be torpedoed. A combination of factors that lead UTEP economics professor Thomas Fullerton to expect unemployment rates of 18% and 20% in cities like El Paso and McAllen.

And, the Dallas Federal Reserve found that in Texas, “company outlooks for both manufacturing and service sectors weakened considerably in March, with the indexes reaching all-time lows.”

A version of what we are seeing — what we will see — in the RGV will play out in poor communities hit by COVID-19 across the country. The dominoes will fall the hardest on those with the least.

For the time being, Americans are coming together in the face of this crisis.

More in Common found that the shared experience of COVID-19 is increasing Americans’ perception of unity. In fact, 90% of Americans believe that “we’re all in it together,” compared to just 63% in the fall of 2018. And the percentage of Americans who regard the country as “very divided” has dropped from 62% to just 22%.

Without courageous leadership, I am not sure these numbers will hold.

Because, as the virus moves through poor immigrant communities, COVID-19 will spread into culturally conservative regions. And their fear of immigration — racial and economic — will be tapped into by unsavory forces looking for someone to blame.

Our sense of unity will be tested.

The only way to meet this challenge, is to work together and realize the promise of America.





President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.

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Ali Noorani

Ali Noorani

President and CEO of National Immigration Forum, author of “Crossing Borders” (April 2022, Rowman & Littlefield), host of the podcast, Only in America.

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