Texas border communities grapple with dueling crises, COVID-19 pandemic and migrant surge

KPRC 2 Investigates talk with health officials and law makers to find out how migrant crossings are having an impact on the rising number of covid cases

Several border leaders continue to call on President Joe Biden to pause the release of asylum-seeking migrants into the United States. These calls for help come as many border communities are struggling under the weight of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Customs and Border Protection, there have been more than 1.2 million apprehensions along the southern border since Oct. 1, the beginning of the fiscal year. Records show 68% of those apprehensions are in Texas.

Numbers Increasing

When KPRC 2 Investigates last visited the border in May, agents in the Rio Grande Valley said they were averaging 1,000 encounters a day.

“In the last few weeks, it’s been over 2,000 to 2,300 apprehensions per day,” said U.S. Border Patrol Agent Jesse Moreno.

“Do you see any signs of it slowing down,” asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“It’s not slowing down,” said Moreno.

Agents continue to see large groups, consisting of more than 100 migrants, crossing the border. Moreno said at the end of July, agents encountered a single group of 509 migrants, a record for the sector.

The majority of single adults crossing the border are from Mexico, according to CBP data. However, the majority of family units and unaccompanied minors are from Central America or countries listed as “other.”

Since Oct. 1, 846,122 migrants who were caught crossing the southern border have been expelled under Title 42, which allows the federal government to expel a migrant to their country of last transit in the interest of public health. However, thousands of asylum-seeking families from Central American have been released from Border Patrol custody into the U.S. while their claims are pending before the courts.

The migrants KPRC 2 spoke within the Texas border town of La Joya said they are fleeing desperate situations in their home countries.

“We were being persecuted by the police. We didn’t have security. We felt persecuted,” said one Nicaraguan national.

Others said they are fleeing rampant poverty and unemployment made worse by hurricanes that hit Central America in 2020.

“We were affected by the hurricanes. She lost her job and my job didn’t pay enough, and I want to give my daughter a better future,” said a father from Guatemala who was caught crossing the border with his wife and 1-year-old child.

KPRC 2 has been asking since Jul. 19 what percentage of migrants apprehended each month have previously been expelled under Title 42. We have yet to receive a response.

Testing, Quarantine and Resources

The reason several border mayors and county judges are asking the federal government to pause the release of asylum-seeking migrants into their communities is because local resources are already stretched thin dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Because of the limited resources, there’s the possibility of putting a resident versus the migrant,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar/(D) Laredo. “We have to prioritize our local residents that are here, our communities.”

The single busiest spot for apprehensions along the entire southern border is the Rio Grande Valley. Several counties in this area have issued disaster declarations because of rising hospital rates and the number of migrants being released into the communities.

“It doesn’t matter to us what you’re political philosophy is, once these folks are here, they’re here. So we don’t have the option to say ‘We can’t treat them. We can’t take care of them,’” said Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority.

Melendez was clear that migrants being released from custody are not taking hospital beds away from local residents who are severely ill. Melendez said less than 2% of the migrants released in this area require hospitalization. His concern is that a general lack of resources could create a situation where physicians have to choose.

“When you’re down here and you say, enough is enough, ‘no mas,’ it doesn’t mean you’re to the right, it doesn’t mean you’re cold-hearted, it’s all you can do, and that’s where we’re at,” he said.

Melendez said out of the 94,583 migrants tested in Hidalgo County since the Spring, 8.4% tested positive for COVID. He said at the end of July, beginning of August, the weekly positivity rate climbed to 14% among the migrants being tested. However, Melendez was direct in stating he does not believe recently released migrants are causing the further spread of the disease.

“Absolutely, the migrants play a part in it, but they’re not the cause. If the migrants weren’t coming, we’d still have a pandemic, we would still have a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” said Melendez.

Since Border Patrol does not test migrants released from custody, Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley stepped in to help fill that role in the spring. Testing at first was done in a parking lot across from the McAllen bus station, then moved to a building across the street, which was secured by a third-party contractor that conducts the tests. Director of Catholic Charities of the RGV, Sister Norma Pimentel, oversees the testing effort and tells KPRC 2 that migrants who tested positive were quarantined in one of 11 hotels in the area.

“The COVID positives, which is my biggest concern, we want to make sure they don’t enter any location until they’re negative,” said Pimentel.

However, the number of migrants being released in McAllen grew to a point where the operation was getting overwhelmed.

“(In) 2019, we were seeing a thousand people being released to us. This time around, we’ve gone beyond that number. I’ve seen 1,500 to 1,800 released,” said Pimentel.

“In a single day?” asked KPRC 2 Investigates reporter Robert Arnold.

“In a single day? Yes, that was never before,” said Pimentel. “And we were not able to empty hotels as fast as we were getting them, so we were at a point we could not hold any more positives.”

At that point, the city of McAllen declared its own emergency. Working with Catholic Charities, Hidalgo County and Border Patrol, the entire operation was moved to Anzalduas Park. The 96-acre public park sits on the banks of the Rio Grande near the town of Mission and has been closed to the public. Pimentel said now Border Patrol takes every migrant being released from custody where they are tested for COVID. Pimentel said positive cases remain in the park in air-conditioned tents. Those who test negative continue on to shelters or other cities where they have family and friends.

Pimentel said some migrants remain in hotels, but once they are cleared from quarantine, the use of hotels for positive cases will be phased out.

Officials with the city of McAllen said while costs are ongoing, a nearly $1.5 FEMA grant covered the cost of the contract for testing, and another $100,000 has been reimbursed for in-kind services. On Aug. 11, KPRC 2 asked FEMA exactly how much is being spent to support the operation in Hidalgo County. We have not received a response and our inquiry has since been forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security.

Many border leaders are angry the federal government left them with the task of testing migrants released from custody and the quarantining of those who are positive.

“The reason we have Anzalduas Park and over 2000 people in Anzalduas Park is because the federal government doesn’t have anywhere for us to take them,” said Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez. “That’s why we made an investment to protect you and protect them.”

Last week, other community leaders said they didn’t have the capacity to test those released from custody. Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said he can’t do what is being done in the McAllen area.

“We don’t have the infrastructure to test and quarantine. So, we don’t test these folks,” said Saenz.

Cuellar said what testing is done is determined by what resources are available in a given area.

“It’s all locally based depending on the local size and strength of the (Non-Governmental Organizations),” said Cuellar.

In addition to local resources, Cuellar said the Border Patrol is overwhelmed. Cuellar said at least 55,000 migrants have been released in the Rio Grande Valley sector this year without being given formal Notices to Appear in Immigration court, but instead told to report to an ICE office within 60 days. Cuellar said these migrants are checked to make sure none are wanted criminals. However, Cuellar said at certain times, agents are handling the apprehension of so many migrants at once they don’t have the time to go through the process of getting each one assigned to an immigration court, along with a date and time for an initial hearing.

On Jul. 30, KPRC 2 asked the government how many of those released without NTAs have reported to ICE offices, and we are still awaiting a response. Cuellar said his office is also asking for this information.

“They’re releasing people on the honor system and the honor system does not work. It’s not the best system to use in the immigration process,” Cuellar said.

More Deportations

Cuellar said after a recent meeting with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, he is hopeful more immediate solutions are imminent. Cuellar said in recent weeks the Biden administration has started deporting more Central American migrants to their home countries.

“I know some people don’t want people deported, but you have to deport somebody and publicize it,” said Cuellar.

Cuellar said crushing poverty, corruption and crime continues to remain a constant in Central America and fuels the “push” for many migrants to seek asylum in the US. However, Cuellar said one of the “pulls” is seeing thousands of migrants released into the US while their asylum claims are pending.

Speeding Up Asylum Claims

According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse maintained by Syracuse University, nearly 5,000 people, comprising 1,700 families, have been placed on the Biden administration’s new dedicated docket for asylum claims. This effort was announced in May with the goal of speeding up decisions on asylum claims for families allowed to remain in the US. According to TRAC data, the number placed on this docket is fewer than 5% of the families apprehended along the southern border since this dedicated docket was announced. You can read the full report here.