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COVID-19 deaths of Mexican nationals in US put strain on consulates

COVID-19 deaths of Mexican nationals in US put strain on consulates
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More than 2,000 Mexican nationals have died of COVID-19 in the U.S., putting a strain on the country's consulates as they handle increased requests for death certificates and repatriating the deceased.

The coronavirus has claimed the lives of at least 2,045 Mexicans in the U.S., according to the country's foreign relations secretariat, but some officials say the figure could be much higher.

"I would not rule out a bigger number," said Martha Bárcena, Mexico's ambassador to the United States, who noted that the current figures are compiled only through consular death-certificate requests.

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Of the nearly 45 million immigrants in the U.S., about a quarter are from Mexico, and about half of all immigrants without legal status are also from Mexico, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute. That makes the Mexican diaspora in the U.S. the largest single-country diaspora in the world.

For many Mexican immigrants, the country's 50 consulates in the U.S. are the only source of government services like issuing identification cards and related documents.

During the pandemic, those consulates have been tasked with providing financial assistance for cremation and the repatriation of remains.

"Our idea above all has been to support people in repatriation of bodies and cremation," said Bárcena. "The consulates have fallen short in their budgets because funeral prices shot up."

Consulates set a target of $500 in funeral assistance for each request, but those prices have varied by region and are adjusted according to the financial situation of the bereaved.

Of the more than 2,000 deaths, 764 were in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

At the height of the pandemic in New York, Mexican consular officials were scrambling — along with local officials — to get a tally of the deceased and secure death certificates for families.

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That process involved navigating the city's maze of makeshift morgues, hoping to identify Mexican victims.

"New York was in a moment of crisis," said Bárcena. "They couldn't move the paperwork forward and they didn't know where the cadavers were."

Once the bodies were identified, a Mexican Air Force cargo plane was dispatched to New York in July to repatriate the remains of 245 Mexican nationals.

Consulates are still playing catch-up, though.

The Chicago consulate, one of the largest, has added extra shifts, while others were forced to close because of local coronavirus guidelines. Upon reopening, many of those consulates had to work through a backlog of other consular services, like passport renewals.

But even those otherwise routine requests quickly became urgent matters, again because of the coronavirus. For Mexican immigrants without legal status who pay U.S. taxes using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN), their only form of official identification is often a Mexican passport.

When the IRS changed its the tax filing date from April 15 to July 15, ITIN holders with a passport expiring during that three-month period often found their local consulates closed, creating a bottleneck upon reopening.

To help ease that strain, the Mexican embassy has been working with national Hispanic organizations like UnidosUS, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Association of Latino Elected Officials to reach out to COVID-19 victims who have not yet contacted a consulate.

The outreach has centered on areas where Mexicans are known to disproportionately work in the meatpacking and agricultural industries, essential work that has been a focal point of coronavirus contagion.

"It hasn't always been easy to do the follow-up we would like due to COVID restrictions," said Bárcena. "It's also not easy to access the [packing] plants."

The consulates have had mixed experiences dealing with other hotbeds for outbreaks: jails, prisons and immigrant detention centers.

Bárcena said she was in close contact with Matthew Albence, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) who announced his retirement last month.

Those conversations "were not easy, but there was openness to talk, which is important," said Bárcena.

ICE said that as of Monday, 22,580 detainees had been tested, leading to 1,084 positive cases.

The agency says only four detainees have died out of 4,444 who have tested positive since the pandemic began.

But multiple reports have found testing and treatment in detention centers often falls short, with infected detainees regularly quarantined in solitary confinement.

Mexican diplomats have encountered different experiences dealing with ICE offices throughout the country, depending mostly on personal relationships between agents and consular officials in any given locality.

Bárcena said Mexican officials have for the most part been promptly informed of the whereabouts and conditions of detainees.

"There's a close relationship in terms of communication and exchange of information about adequate [sanitary] measures," said Bárcena.

"It doesn't always work at 100 percent, it depends a lot on the personality of the consuls and the ICE officials in each region," she added.

A bright spot for foreign nationals, including those without legal status, has been the willingness of local officials throughout the country to provide free COVID-19 testing.

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The coronavirus-relief packages passed by Congress in the spring did not make such immigrants eligible for federal Medicaid or free testing and treatment.

But the Mexican consular network has found that most testing centers are giving out free tests, regardless of citizenship status.

"The information we've received from almost all consulates is that testing is free almost everywhere, although treatment is not," said Bárcena.