McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A confluence of immigration-related events are creating a surge of asylum-seekers in South Texas during this dangerous COVID-19 pandemic, and a South Texas lawmaker says the situation is increasing so rapidly that additional U.S. Border Patrol agents are being sent en masse to the region to assist, Border Report has learned.
In the Gulf Coast city of Brownsville, 108 migrants released during the past month have shown to be carrying the coronavirus, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said Wednesday. And he says that is putting the South Texas border community, as well as the volunteers who help them, and the border agents, at risk.
“They tested some of the people who got put at the bus station in Brownsville and according to the rapid tests, about 108 tested positive. So basically that creates a situation that they are letting people who are positive (for coronavirus) get on buses and with the permission of Homeland Security they can go anywhere in the United States,” Cuellar said during an online news conference.
His comments prompted outcry from Republican Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who late Wednesday blamed the Biden administration on social media and called the release of migrants “a callous act.”
Felipe Romero, spokesman for the City of Brownsville, confirmed to Border Report late Wednesday that 108 migrants who were released at the downtown bus station in Brownsville over the past month by DHS officials have tested positive for the coronavirus. He said that nonprofit organizations, such as Team Brownsville and Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, have stepped in to offer hotel rooms to the migrants for them to quarantine. But he said the city cannot stop the migrants from traveling because they have been issued documents by Department of Homeland Security allowing them north into the interior.
“We let them know and we guide them with CDC guidelines and explain to them that it’s really important that they isolate and quarantine, but I want to make clear that we can’t contain them. We can’t stop them,” Romero said.
We can’t contain them. We can’t stop them.”Felipe Romero, Brownsville spokesman
The City of Brownsville had requested last month and received 10,000 COVID rapid test kits from Abbott’s office. Romero said they have not used the entire supply and said every migrant who appears at the bus station is being tested, as long as they have supplies.
But migrants crossing into South Texas are not getting tested for the coronavirus when they are first apprehended by Border Patrol agents. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials have told Border Report that they do not have the staff or equipment to test everyone who is apprehended without documents on the border.
Border Report was the first media outlet in early February to report this new surge of released migrants into the Rio Grande Valley, and that the mayor of McAllen, Texas, had asked the governor for 10,000 coronavirus test kits so they could test everyone before they got on buses in McAllen.
Now, a month later, Cuellar says added border security personnel are needed to help manage the situation and are being sent to the region.
“Hundreds of Border Patrol agents from the northern area, from the coastal area and Laredo sector are being transferred down to the Valley for 30 days,” Cuellar said.
Due to the pandemic, extra law enforcement and border security are needed to ensure proper social distancing as they process large groups of asylum-seekers who have been crossing into South Texas in groups as big as 100 since late January, Cuellar said.
He said that Border Patrol agents are being sent to the RGV Sector for 30-day assignments. But he added that he expects they will stay much longer.
Cuellar, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, said he learned about the surge as it relates to costs associated with the added operations.
A spokesperson for U.S. Customs and Border Protection confirmed the added agents to Border Report, saying: “Due to fluctuations along the Southwest Border, U.S. Customs and Border Protection is deploying additional Border Patrol agents to the Rio Grande Valley Sector area of operation. CBP seeks to deter and disrupt human smuggling activities by transnational criminal organizations and ensure our personnel are properly equipped to maintain border security.”
It is unclear exactly how many added Border Patrol agents are being sent to the region. The spokesperson said that is “sensitive” information related to law enforcement operations and cannot be released.
“The situation is this: They are letting undocumented people into the United States but not the legal visa-holders who come in and spend billions from Mexico,” Cuellar said.
In late January, CBP officials began releasing certain asylum-seekers traveling with “tender age” children — mostly those under the age of 7 — because the Mexican government in the northern border state of Tamaulipas told U.S. officials it would no longer accept young children back.
Tamaulipas is the sprawling northern Mexican state directly south of the Texas towns of McAllen, Mission and spans as far west as Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas, and east to the Gulf Coast city of Matamoros, south of Brownsville.
Drug cartels regularly control this state and it is rife with poverty and has suffered economically especially during this coronavirus pandemic. Adding to the state’s troubles is a new national law that was enacted on Jan. 6 in Mexico that forbids the detention of young migrant children.
And although Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s government instituted this law, the structure in Tamaulipas is not set up to handle the children or their families, Marcos Tamariz, Doctors Without Borders’ deputy head of mission for Mexico and Central America, told Border Report this week.
“The actual situation is they’re not able nor have the capacity to keep them or provide the protection and services that they deserve,” Tamariz said from Matamoros, Mexico, where his organization is helping migrants.
The Mexican government agency Desarrollo Integral de la Familia (DIF Nacional), which oversees the welfare of children, is to blame, he said. It is similar to Child Protective Services in the United States, but the DIF agencies operate differently within each of Mexico’s states. And in Tamaulipas, Tamariz says, the condition at DIF facilities are abysmal.
Some DIF facilities lack doors and “it’s worse than a makeshift camp, you don’t even have access to proper water,” Tamariz said.
“We are continuing to advocate that the Mexican government finds a temporary solution because they said, ‘Oh, we no longer want to have minors in our detention centers.’ Great, but then there is no alternative at the moment for them,” Tamariz said. Sadly this is the situation we see.”
There is no alternative at the moment for them.”Marcos Tamariz, Doctors Without Borders
Tamariz says that is the root cause that has driven the northward migration of families into the United States: U.S. Border Patrol agents who cannot return these children and their families across the river because the State of Tamaulipas has simply refused to accept them back.
The release of hundreds of migrant families per day into South Texas comes at a time when DHS officials have begun releasing as many as 100 asylum-seekers per day into Brownsville. These migrants had lived in a tent encampment in Matamoros, Mexico, and had been part of the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), a program implemented during the Trump administration that forced them to wait in Mexico during their U.S. immigration proceedings.
Coronavirus testing is being done on every MPP migrant who is released. The testing is being overseen by United Nations officials in Mexico and the asylum-seekers must not have COVID-19 in order to be admitted into the United States.
But that isn’t the case with migrants being released in South Texas by CBP officers and Border Patrol agents. CBP officials have told Border Report that they do not test migrants who are apprehended unless they show medical symptoms of the virus. Then, they are referred to a local hospital or health care provider.
Romero, the Brownsville city spokesman, said that all the asylum-seekers brought in as part of the MPP rollback are again tested again for coronavirus at the bus station.
On the other hand, most of the migrants who enter South Texas illegally and are released by Border Patrol officials end up at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, where everyone who walks through the door is tested. Sister Norma Pimentel, whose Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley runs the Respite Center, she told Border Report on Wednesday that anyone who is positive gets assistance by local nonprofits and referred to area hotels to quarantine.
Cuellar said that the Biden administration is not listening to border leaders, but mainly migrant advocates, and they are not getting the entire picture of what is actually happening in South Texas.
He says that as long as Title 42 travel restrictions are in place — which allows only “essential” workers to cross the border to reduce the spread of coronavirus — no others should be allowed into the country, especially those who are not tested for coronavirus.
He said that normally, 18 million Mexicans cross the border into Texas each year and typically spend $19 billion in the United States. But since March 20, they have not been allowed to come.
“That creates a tension and I’ve told the White House that,” Cuellar said. “They should not only listen to the immigration advocates and activists but they need to also listen to, and have a balanced response, to communities on border.”
In speaking to media on Monday in Washington, D.C., Homeland Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas insisted that those who cross are not being admitted into the United States.
Cuellar says it is obvious that there is a disconnect between what is happening on the border and what Washington is hearing.
“I’m hoping the White House and the new Homeland secretary will pay attention to what’s happening down here at the border,” Cuellar said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.