LA JOYA, Texas (Border Report) — A group of migrants who recently tested positive for the coronavirus were supposed to be isolated at a South Texas hotel but were seen at a Whataburger restaurant in the town of La Joya this week, raising concerns from community leaders, criticisms and many questions as to how migrants could be walking around.
The Department of Homeland Security’s release of migrants, including those who are infected, in the Rio Grande Valley is nothing new and is something that the nonprofit organization Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV) has been dealing with since migrant families first started being legally let go in early February pending their U.S. immigration court proceedings.
The process of relocating migrants — such as non-governmental organizations driving migrants to hotels, presumably — could potentially cease after Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday issued an executive order “restricting ground transportation of migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 into Texas communities.”
The governor’s order, which specifically mentions the incident in La Joya, states that “no person, other than a federal, state, or local law enforcement official shall provide ground transportation to a group of migrants who have been detained by CBP for crossing the border illegally or who would have been subject to expulsion under the Title 42 order. (Title 42 is a public health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2020 to prevent the cross-border spread of COVID-19.)
Altogether, there are about 10 hotels in a 40-mile radius from the South Texas towns of Weslaco to La Joya and Edinburg and Mission that have been contracted by CCRGV to safely house migrants until they test negative for coronavirus.
An army of volunteers and staff from the nonprofit help to supply the infected migrants with hot meals, hygiene items and tend to their needs at the various hotels.
There are roughly 1,000 migrants in isolation, Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities RGV told Border Report on Tuesday.
That number constantly fluctuates, she said, as more migrants are released from isolation and others are put in each day. And it does not mean that 1,000 migrants have COVID-19, because if one family member tests positive for the virus then the entire family is forced to isolate until all tests return negative, she said.
CCRGV has contracted a third-party NGO to conduct testing, for which the City of McAllen pays, across the street from its Humanitarian Respite Center. Migrants who test positive for the coronavirus are not allowed in the Respite Center but are instead sent to hotels to isolate themselves.
On Monday, the Humanitarian Respite Center filled to capacity and for the first time had to shut its doors to new arrivals, and city leaders say the situation got dicey.
Pimentel said her staff had to scramble to find additional facilities to help house the infected migrants, as well as those who are not sick but needed a place to sleep. She said she found accommodations for 400 migrants through area churches and the Salvation Army, which took the overflow of migrants who tested negative for the coronavirus. And they added hotels for the families with members who tested positive.
As they made the arrangements, the testing center downtown held the sick migrants until they were safely transported to the hotels, Pimentel said.
It remains unclear how CCRGV’s operations will be impacted by the governor’s order, which was issued late Wednesday afternoon. Border Report had spoken with Pimentel before Abbott issued the order, but has again reached out for comment.
One of the last hotels CCRGV added to house infected migrants on Monday was the Texas Inn in La Joya, which Pimentel hesitated to use because it is over 20 miles away. Nevertheless, they booked the entire 30-room hotel and began taking the migrants.
Once in their rooms, her staff told them to stay inside the hotels, and that meals and any items they would need would be brought to them.
“We ask them to remain inside in their rooms so that we can provide them food and everything they need so they can stay safe and inside,” Pimentel said.
But not all did. And Monday’s incident in the La Joya burger joint raised concerns from local residents and came at a time when coronavirus cases are spiking throughout the region.
The incident drew the public’s ire after the La Joya Police Department put a public health warning on its social media saying infected migrants had been at a local Whataburger unmasked and visibly sick and a resident had called police to complain.
La Joya police on Tuesday evening held a news conference and complained that they had not been informed by CCRGV of the arrangement with the hotel to house infected migrants in their city.
“This is to bring awareness to an incident that occurred in our city and its probably occurring in other cities and we want the community to know that the police department in the city of La Joya is doing everything they need to do to keep the community safe,” La Joya Police Sgt. Manuel Casas said.
“We have a large influx of undocumented immigrants coming into the country and because of that there is an overwhelming amount of work that is put on the police department and Border Patrol, who are the ones who are out there and tasked with this job,” Casas said.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this area and is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, also told Border Report that the situation was unacceptable.
“I know they’re over capacity but they cannot release folks into my community, in this case La Joya, and not coordinate with the local folks there,” Cuellar said via phone from Washington, D.C. “They were concerned about health issues. You got to have very very strong communications between all the different players.”
Pimentel said the incident was isolated and her contingency of volunteers of staff work diligently to take food and other items to infected migrants in need, as well as care for the thousand migrants — and sometimes more — whom Border Patrol agents drop off daily at her Humanitarian Respite Center daily.
She said the situation has “been corrected and they have been told, “please remain in your rooms and let us know what you need and we’ll make that available to you.”
She added that CCRGV has since hired a private security guard stationed at the Texas Inn hotel “so that they will remind the families to remain inside,” she said, “to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez told Border Report that he praises the work CCRGV has done to help the migrants and to keep them off city streets since the first immigration wave began here in 2014.
“That’s the first story I’ve heard of that kind of concern,” Rodriguez said.
He added that he knows that there are several hotels housing the migrants but he doesn’t know which they are and that is handled through Pimentel’s organization.
The city this year has spent over $97,000 to test the migrants for coronavirus and has given CCRGV use of the downtown building — which used to be a nightclub — that is located across the street from the bus depot where most migrants catch buses to cities in the interior.
“Believe me every time I have an interview I talk about how grateful we are to Catholic Charities. They’ve been a real champ for us for seven years since this thing started. Without them we just don’t know where we’d be,” Rodriguez said.
Meantime, Abbott said that directed the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to stop any vehicle suspected of transporting migrants and reroute them back to where they originated. DPS has also been given the authority to impound a vehicle that violates the executive order.
“The dramatic rise in unlawful border crossings has also led to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among unlawful migrants who have made their way into our state, and we must do more to protect Texans from this virus and reduce the burden on our communities,” Abbott said. “This Executive Order will reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in our communities.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.