The small, four-passenger jet took off from Tampico, Mexico, on a recent morning in mid-April and headed north, crossing the border and landing in McAllen four hours later. Inside the plane, a 51-year-old businesswoman from one of the wealthiest families in northeastern Mexico relaxed alongside her mother. On the tarmac in Texas, where her plane was surrounded by ten other private jets from Mexico, she told immigration authorities that the purpose of their trip was a routine appointment with a plastic surgeon in Houston. She wasn’t lying, but her answer conveniently omitted a larger, more important aim. The women had crossed into the United States to get their COVID-19 vaccinations at a U.S. clinic, spending $5,000 on the flight alone and using their privileged status to bypass their own country’s slow-moving and, at times, chaotic vaccine rollout.
Within hours, the pair had secured vaccination appointments at a Houston Walmart and a plush room at the Westin Galleria, a resort-style hotel with direct access to one of the most popular shopping malls in the world. In the past two months, the hotel has become the premier destination in Texas for thousands of wealthy Mexicans awaiting vaccination. During her stay this month, the businesswoman said she had to wait for 45 minutes to access the business center’s printer one morning because a long line of Mexican medical tourists were anxiously printing documents to take to their vaccine appointments. When it came time to get her shot, she prepared for the possibility of pushback from health officials. “I went to the appointment with my IRS receipts, proof of property ownership in the U.S., and everything, just in case,” she said. “When I come back for my second dose, I’m still going to be scared.”
Texas, like many states, does not require proof of residency to receive a vaccine. The reason, health officials say, is to remove barriers for residents without Texas IDs, such as college students, winter Texans, and undocumented immigrants, to help the state achieve herd immunity. It’s also meant that thousands from outside the country have been able to travel to Texas to get shots. Reached by email, Chris Van Deusen, a Department of State Health Services spokesperson, said vaccines distributed in Texas are intended for people who live, work, or spend a significant amount of time in the state. He said only 0.04 percent of those vaccinated in Texas through last week were from outside the country, adding that “the data shows it’s not a major issue.”
Despite the lack of a residency requirement, many Mexican citizens who get the vaccine in the United States have provided U.S. addresses of friends or relatives when signing up. Others have registered from the address of a “shopping house,” a vacation home usually in Dallas or Houston, purchased for multiweek shopping excursions. The businesswoman from Tampico said some of her friends have even purchased fake IDs.
Of the thousands of Mexicans seeking the vaccine in the U.S.—including two of the country’s Supreme Court justices, according to Sin Embargo—most arrive from wealthy neighborhoods in Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey, and use the occasion to enjoy fine dining and designer shopping while they’re in town. Though this brand of medical tourism includes ample time for leisure activities, more than a dozen Mexican citizens interviewed by Texas Monthly said making the decision to travel north—spending thousands on plane tickets, hotel rooms, rental cars, and food for days, if not weeks, at a time—was still a stress-filled experience driven by desperation for the vaccine. The interview subjects agreed to speak on the condition that their identities remain largely protected because of fears about compromising their visas, drawing unwanted public scrutiny, and making themselves vulnerable to kidnappers.
Because main ports of entry on land remain closed to nonessential travel, flights and tourist visas remain the easiest way to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Houston in particular, which has dozens of vaccination sites, including some that no longer require appointments and rarely ask for identification, has emerged as a go-to destination, offering one of the easiest paths to securing the vaccine in the U.S. But medical tourists have also been flying to Dallas and San Antonio, and multiple private jets with Mexican tail numbers were spotted on the runway in Amarillo this month.
Mexico’s vaccine rollout has been slow, hampered by logistical challenges and a government distribution strategy that, against the advice of epidemiologists, prioritizes less crowded, rural areas. Only teachers and people over the age of sixty are currently eligible, and just 6 percent of Mexico’s population is fully vaccinated, versus nearly a quarter of the population in both Texas and the United States. Adding to the problem, lines for those who are eligible can be brutally long. A Mexican businessman living in Houston who requested anonymity because of his reluctance to publicly criticize his home country’s government said his elderly parents waited in line twelve hours to get vaccinated this month in a small town a few hours northeast of Mexico City. “Now they’re saying, ‘We should have just spent three thousand bucks to travel abroad and avoided the agony of the line,’” he said. “They can’t even be sure if the vaccines they got are good or bad.”
Some affluent Mexicans also fear that Mexican vaccination centers are using imitation Pfizer vaccine bottles that contain saline water. One video widely circulated on WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned encrypted messaging app, appears to show a nurse in a mass vaccination center in Mexico inserting an empty needle into a patient’s arm and pretending to give a vaccination. This week, the Wall Street Journal reported that Mexican authorities have recovered vials of counterfeit Pfizer vaccines that likely contained an anti-wrinkle solution and were being sold for $1,000 a dose.
Over the past month, many moneyed Mexican families have concluded it could take six months or longer for them to receive a vaccine if they remain in Mexico. “For many people, spending the money to come to the U.S. is worth it, considering how out of control the virus has been in Mexico and, frankly, how little the government has cared, if that’s the right word,” said one South Texas businessman who has family members in Mexico and requested anonymity because of his close ties to Mexico’s political class. “They’ve realized they’re powerless to control the spread, and reaching herd immunity is the strategy moving forward.”
In the early weeks of the vaccine rollout, the South Texas businessman said, vaccine cards became a short-lived, Instagrammable status symbols on par with having a newly launched iPhone before it’s available for purchase in Mexico. Now the Instagram flex no longer packs the same punch: many of the most affluent Mexican families have the cards. Unlike the first medical tourists, who often had second homes in the States, the businessman said, the Mexicans currently traveling to the U.S. for the vaccine are members of the professional class, most of whom are arriving on commercial flights.
For those seeking the vaccine in the U.S., crossing the border in a twin-engine Cessna might cost a family $1,500 per hour. A fifteen-seat Global Express private jet charter, often used for long-range corporate flights, that some of the wealthiest families have opted for costs of about $9,000 per hour per person (or about $20,000 to fly from Mexico City to Houston). The businesswoman on the four-passenger jet noted that some private-plane owners have begun charging high dollar to fly medical tourists across the U.S.-Mexico border. “Our friend is charging $1,800 to take you from Matamoros to Brownsville, which is roughly an eight-minute flight,” she said.
Budget travelers have gone as far as flying into major hubs before traveling by car or bus to rural health clinics to find available vaccines. In San Antonio, ABC affiliate KTXS uncovered an online ad for a concierge service that promises to handle appointments at any Texas health center, as well as give administrative guidance and tips on where to stay and how to get around.
Mexicans who use WhatsApp have begun circulating tips for getting vaccinated in the U.S. without being caught, including how to infiltrate booking websites that monitor a user’s location using virtual private networks (VPN) and which apps to download to create a fake U.S. phone number. WhatsApp users can also find information about which flights to take, what to tell immigration officials at the border, and which Texas vaccination centers don’t ask for identification.
Even with guidance from social media in hand, most Mexicans said traveling to Texas to get a shot was fraught with uncertainty. Despite a month of careful planning using information she’d gathered on WhatsApp, a 33-year-old university employee who works with job recruiters from Mexico City said she was terrified she would be detained once she arrived in Houston for her vaccine appointment at a Walmart in March. “I felt like I was crossing the border without papers,” said the woman, who took time off from work and spent $3,000 on flights, hotels, and a rental car. What ultimately persuaded her to board the plane was the feeling that she could no longer remain at home in isolation waiting for a vaccine. “If I keep waiting for the vaccine in Mexico, it could be years before I get it,” she said. “I couldn’t keep living like that.”
That wealthy Mexicans are receiving vaccines in Texas has prompted some political pushback. State representative Eddie Morales, whose district includes eight border counties and who declined an interview request, this month accused “superrich Mexicans” of “rigging the system” and called for stricter residency rules for vaccinations. His sentiments have been echoed by other leaders, including Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, who could not immediately be reached for comment. But, at least in Houston, the destination for many medical tourists, it doesn’t appear as if Mexicans are taking vaccine slots from Texans. Reached by phone, a spokesperson for Harris County Public Health said for several weeks the county has had more available vaccine doses than patients signing up to receive them.
Asked whether they felt guilty about taking vaccines away from Americans, most medical tourists said it wasn’t a concern. In addition to believing that Texas had more doses than it needed, many, like one 22-year-old student from Mexico City who flew to San Antonio before driving to a Lubbock CVS for his shot, told Texas Monthly that conservative Texans’ skepticism about the vaccine had influenced his family’s decision to cross the border. He said he’s seen that many Texans “don’t want the vaccines, so we don’t feel bad coming and making the appointment and getting it,” he said. “At the vaccination center everyone was extremely nice and polite to us. I told them I was Mexican and they still gave me the vaccine.”
By the time many travelers reach the Westin Galleria in Houston, fears about getting the vaccine begin to dissipate. Medical tourists find themselves surrounded by the same faces that already inhabit their world of upscale restaurants, shopping malls, country clubs, and gated communities back home. On a recent Friday, the hotel’s warmly lit, marble-tiled lobby was full of Mexican travelers of all ages dressed in trendy attire, with luggage and shopping bags and tiny dogs in tow. The hotel had placed a full-time Spanish speaker at the front desk in February; a manager at the desk estimated that 50 percent or more of the hotel’s guests were Mexicans in town for the vaccine. “We see people for about five days at a time and then we see them again a few weeks later when they come back for the second vaccine,” she said.
One floor up, the Galleria almost felt like an upscale shopping mall in Mexico City, 1,500 miles south. A small army of multigenerational tourists, typically speaking Spanish and dressed in understated designer clothing, milled around the Apple store, perused Armani Exchange, formed lines outside Louis Vuitton, and munched on hamburgers at Shake Shack. “It’s crazy to see this many Mexicans outside Mexico,” a father from Mexico City who was in town to get a shot remarked as he waited in line with his son outside the Ferragamo store. “It’s like the whole country is here for the vaccine.”