If the bedrock of our democracy is resilient communities, Texas’ failure to protect its border communities is damaging our democracy writ large. Prior to the pandemic, the U.S. was already facing a humanitarian crisis at the southern border. Now, border towns are facing the compounded effect of the state’s pandemic response failure and the Trump administration’s failure to quell the migration crisis. Texas owes it to its residents and the country to resuscitate and protect its border communities by combating the health and migration crises simultaneously.
On July 4, most hospitals across the Rio Grande Valley were at capacity. Data obtained by the New York Times signal that border counties are experiencing concentrations of coronavirus cases, in some instances, that are higher than those in bigger metropolitan Texas cities. Starr County currently has 1,509 cases per 100,000 people, which is more than Bexar County with 1,009 or Travis County with a rate of 1,212 per 100,000.
American domestic policy did not prepare our communities for resiliency. At the federal level, a capitalistic system that prioritizes profits over people fails to provide vulnerable residents with universal access to health care. Even after the Affordable Care Act, Texas was one of 13 states that chose not to expand access to health care via Medicaid expansion. Consequently, millions of Texans were left without health care. A large portion of them live along the border.
Two years ago the Urban Institute estimated that 27 percent of people below age 65 living in South Texas were uninsured, compared with 19 percent of all Texans and 11 percent of the U.S. population. Texas is failing the country’s border communities potentially worse than federal domestic policy has been failing border communities for centuries.
Compound the high level of health care inequity with the administration’s response to the humanitarian crisis at the border, and we find that border communities have become an epicenter for the nation's failed domestic and foreign policies. COVID-19 cases at migrant detention centers are at an all-time high. Yet, since March, the Trump administration has weaponized Title 42, the part of the U.S. Code that deals with public health and welfare, and apprehended 259,147 people at the border, citing spread of COVID-19 as the justification. The Trump administration’s use of Title 42 is a xenophobic attack on migrants. Absent a true asylum system, the Trump administration will continue to violate human rights.
Since 2017, the state has divested nearly $860,000 away from programs that benefit border towns, like the Colonias Initiative program. The disparities in upward mobility and general access to systems for well-being are not only reflected in the colonias, the low-income neighborhoods lacking water or sewage systems, but along South Texas border counties as well. According to American Community Survey data, poverty concentration along border metropolitan cities is the highest in Texas, compounding the urgency for an effective pandemic response. Now, our border communities have become the center of a weaponized public health policy and a dismal foreign policy, while failure on health care is compounding a health crisis.
Democracy needs resilient communities that can adapt to challenges, disasters, and crises. But democratic resiliency is also a product of federal and foreign policies. If our democracy cannot protect vulnerable communities, then the very core of those who make up the "us" in the United States cannot defend a democracy that pushes them away. Therein lies the reality that domestic policy is foreign policy, but current state and federal failures to act on this principle are sabotaging the governing system on which all of us rely.
Rayo-Garza is a political science professor at University of Texas San Antonio.