McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas addressed several immigration issues on the Southwest border during Monday’s White House press briefing, but he did not explain or acknowledge that for the past month, U.S. Border Patrol agents have been releasing hundreds of migrants traveling with young children near McAllen, Texas.
Despite Title 42 travel restrictions that were implemented nearly a year ago to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the families are allowed to travel into the interior of the country with the promise that they’ll appear in immigration court.
“If they come, if families come, if single adults come to the border, we are obligated to, in the service of public health — including the health of the very people who are thinking of coming — to impose the travel restrictions under the CDCs Title 42 authority and return them to Mexico and we have done that,” Mayorkas said in Washington, D.C. “The fact of the matter is families and single adults are being returned under the COVID-19 restrictions.”
But officials in South Texas are continuing to tell a very different story.
A spokesman with U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Monday afternoon confirmed to Border Report that the releases are still occurring mostly in McAllen, but said that some families also are being released nearby in Brownsville, Texas.
The mayor of McAllen on Saturday told Border Report that U.S. Border Patrol agents are releasing hundreds of people daily at the downtown McAllen bus station, and most wind up at Humanitarian Respite Center across the street.
Border Report first reported in early February the release of a rising number of undocumented migrant families who were apprehended with “tender age” children in the McAllen area.
Title 42 travel restrictions, which have been in place since March 2020, began under the Trump administration to prevent any migrants from staying in the country in order to lower the spread of coronavirus. For nearly a year, all migrants apprehended have been immediately sent back to Mexico to stymie the spread of the disease.
But a month ago, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee, told Border Report that families traveling with “tender age” young children were being released by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the Rio Grande Sector. He said it began in late January after Mexican officials notified Border Patrol that they would no longer accept young children expelled by the United States due to the high levels of crime in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, and especially in the city of Reynosa, which is across the Rio Grande from McAllen.
The migrants who are paroled into the U.S. by Border Patrol agents are released on what is called a Notice to Appear (NTA) and they promise to attend any and all upcoming immigration court hearings in whatever U.S. city they are living in, or else they face immediate deportation or expulsion.
When the releases first began, CPB issued the following statement: “CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum safe holding capacity. Per longstanding practice, when long-term holding solutions aren’t possible, some migrants will be processed for removal, provided a Notice to Appear, and released into the U.S. to await a future immigration hearing.”
Mayorkas on Monday did say that every asylum-seeker’s case is reviewed separately.
While that could explain the releases in South Texas, Border Report has reached out to DHS for clarification and will update this story if more information is received.
“We must address the needs of each family member, each family unit, in an individualized way in accordance with the law and these are our goals,” Mayorkas said.
Also on Monday, Mayorkas stated that DHS officials were testing all migrants apprehended on the Southwest border. But that is not happening here in South Texas, a CBP spokesperson told Border Report. Only those who show symptoms are referred to a hospital or medical personnel for further examination and possible testing, he said.
An official statement by CBP emailed to Border Report said: “CBP uses a combination of onsite contract medical personnel and referrals to local health systems to provide medical support for persons in custody who need medical attention. CBP personnel conduct initial inspections for symptoms or risk factors associated with COVID-19 and consult with onsite medical personnel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or local health systems as appropriate. Onsite medical personnel can provide basic assessment and supportive treatment, but suspected COVID-19 cases are referred to the local health system for appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment.
Mayorkas said that families are being sent to facilities operated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which are testing for COVID-19. “As a matter of process, individuals of family units are brought into ICE custody and they are tested. ICE has the ability to test them and to isolate and quarantine them and to address their needs,” Mayorkas said.
But that is not what Border Patrol officials are saying they are doing, or what journalists on the ground in South Texas are witnessing. Here, migrants are seen being dropped off by Border Patrol agents in downtown McAllen, not by ICE agents.
Texas Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat who represents this region, told Border Report in early February that “Border Patrol is apprehending them but they are just releasing them.”
“They would just drop them off at the bus station without testing them. Obviously, that’s very alarming to all of us in that they’re coming from Central America and through Mexico and then to be released into the U.S. without being tested for COVID, that’s really unconscionable,” Hinojosa said.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling last month requested from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and received 10,000 COVID-19 tests to be used at the Humanitarian Respite Center, which is run by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV). But on Saturday, he said the facility had run out of tests and was asking local hospitals to help provide them with more.
Border Report has learned that upwards of 1,000 migrants per day are being tested at the Humanitarian Respite Center, although CBP officials could not confirm that number saying they do not provide daily apprehension or release data, only monthly data.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of CCRGV, said she hopes that federal officials will provide funding and more resources for their facility as it fills up with more and more migrants on a daily basis. Officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency did reimburse the center after years of funding applications that were caught up in red tape, she said. The amount exceeded half a million dollars but in no way covered the years of assistance they have been giving, she told Border Report on Friday.
“Let’s hope this time they don’t take that long,” Pimentel said. “They already stepped up and said there is reimbursement for the humanitarian response and so I think it will be faster.”
This current surge is reminiscent of what happened in South Texas in 2014, when the largest influx of migrant families and unaccompanied children rushed the border and crossed the Rio Grande to claim asylum.
Mayorkas stressed that the immigration system under President Donald Trump “was gutted” and “dismantled” and said it will take time to rebuild. And his message to migrants was to not rush the border.
“What we are seeing now at the border is the immediate result of the dismantlement of the system and the time it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch,” Mayorkas said.
His comments came on the 18th anniversary of the creation of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which was formed after 9/11. And this was on his 27th day leading this agency that has the most law enforcement personnel of any within the U.S. government.
“We are dedicated to achieving, and quite frankly, working around the clock to replace the cruelty of the past administration with an orderly, humane and safe immigration process. It is hard and it will take time but rest assured we are going to get it done,” Mayorkas said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.