AUSTIN, Texas – Gov. Greg Abbott appeared this week to rebuff help from the federal government to give coronavirus testing to migrants before they are released from federal custody, saying it’s a federal responsibility to screen immigrants coming into Texas.
The announcement came after Abbott, a Republican, repeatedly accused the administration of Democratic President Joe Biden of “releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texans to COVID.” The Biden administration denied that Thursday, and CNN reported that Abbott was “stalling” on a federal offer to pitch in on testing migrants.
Abbott and Biden have been fighting for days over coronavirus safety protocols and whose actions have been putting the health of Texans at risk. After Abbott announced this week that he was lifting Texas’ statewide mask mandate and capacity restrictions on businesses, Biden called that decision “Neanderthal thinking.” Abbott shot back in multiple interviews and social media posts that Biden’s immigration policies were the real threat to Texans and accused the president of releasing migrants with COVID-19 into Texas.
“The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” Abbott wrote in one tweet Wednesday afternoon.
Asked for evidence of that claim, Abbott’s office pointed to news reports from NBC News, FOX News the NY Post earlier this week that 108 migrants had tested positive since Jan. 25 in Brownsville after being released by federal authorities. The city has been conducting the tests since late January. It’s unclear from the reports how many of the asylum seekers are staying in Texas. The majority of migrants apprehended by or who surrender to federal authorities usually leave for places farther north.
Migrants released from custody while their asylum cases are pending are given “notices to appear” for court, a document that when issued signals the beginning of removal proceedings for the migrant if they cannot convince federal authorities they have the right to stay. The office of Customs and Border Protection in South Texas did not respond to a request for comment seeking more information about the testing process.
The testing in Brownsville was reportedly being administered by the city. NBC reported that 6.3% of the migrants tested were confirmed to have the coronavirus. That rate is smaller than the positivity rate statewide, in which an average of 8.3% of tests came back positive over the past seven days. The 108 tests over the past five weeks is a small share of the more than 3,800 confirmed cases in Cameron County reported by the state since Jan. 25
After Abbott began upbraiding Biden for releasing the migrants, CNN reported that the Department of Homeland Security had tried to use Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars to help local officials test migrants released from federal custody and isolate them if they test positive. The grant money needed state approval to be allocated, CNN reported.
Abbott seemed to make clear Thursday that he was not interested in the federal offer. He argued in a statement that border security is “strictly a federal responsibility,” and thus the Biden administration alone should “test, screen, and quarantine” migrants who may have COVID-19.
“Instead of doing their job, the Biden Administration suggested it did not have the sufficient resources and, remarkably, asked Texas to assist them in aiding their illegal immigration program,” Abbott said. “Texas refused.”
Asked about Abbott’s statement, the White House referred to comments that press secretary Jen Psaki made Thursday that the federal policy is for coronavirus testing for migrants released from custody “to be done at the state and local level with the help of NGOs and local governments.” She added that the policy states that migrants should be tested “before they are even moved to go stay with family members or others they may know while their cases are being adjudicated.”
Since before the 2020 election, the number of migrants apprehended on the border has increased significantly. From October through January, more than 296,000 undocumented immigrants have been apprehended. That’s more than half of the 458,000 apprehended in all of the 2020 federal fiscal year, according to federal statistics.
The Biden administration has also stopped adding migrants to the Trump-era Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced tens of thousands of asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings in American courts. Some of the first MPP arrivals began entering Texas last week at Brownsville and El Paso, but they are tested for COVID-19 before entering, confirmed Ruben Garcia, the director of the Annunciation House shelter network that is temporarily housing the migrants.
The release of asylum seekers from custody with notices to appear have been a lightning rod issue for Republicans who incorrectly claim that most asylum seekers ignore the notices and instead try to live in the shadows unlawfully. A 2019 study from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, which uses Freedom of Information Act requests to track immigration court cases, found that more than 80% of all migrants show up for their court hearings, and that number increases to nearly 100% if the asylum seekers have representation.
But Abbott said Thursday that Texas “will not aid a program that makes our country a magnet for illegal immigration.”
Texas has already been sending tests to border communities, however. The Texas Division of Emergency Management confirmed to the Tribune that it has provided testing to “local officials in border communities who have been responding to an influx of individuals crossing the international border.”
“Since the end of January, the state has provided 40,000 COVID-19 tests to Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and Del Rio to meet the testing need not being fulfilled by the federal government,” the division’s spokesperson, Seth Christensen, said in a statement.
As for whether the state will provide more tests to border cities, Christensen said TDEM “does not have any outstanding requests from our local partners for testing resources.”
Abbott’s comments about migrants with coronavirus have sparked dismay among many advocates along the border. The governor, along with other Texas politicians, has a history of describing migrants in terms that suggest they are a threat. In 2019, a day before a gunman targeting Mexicans killed 22 people in El Paso, Abbott sent out a campaign mailer calling on supporters to “DEFEND” Texas at the border. He later said “mistakes were made” about the mailer.
Clara Long, the associate director with the U.S. Program at Human Rights Watch, said Abbott’s comments this week are disturbing but not surprising as the governor tries to distract from his own executive order critics say will put Texans at risk.
“That fact that that is just such a political statement seems so revealed by the mask [order],” she said. “Do you care about people’s health or do you not? But it’s just clear it’s not about protecting Texans or protecting migrants. It’s about political gain.”