BROWNSVILLE, Texas (Border Report) — Despite spending an hour with South Texas border officials in the Rio Grande Valley, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ visit Thursday still left many asking the Biden administration for more “urgent” solutions to a surge of asylum-seeking migrant families who are bringing coronavirus into the region.
Mayorkas on Thursday met with local mayors and county judges in McAllen, toured Anzalduas Park in Mission, Texas, where 1,000 migrant families are living, and he met with Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the region’s largest migrant shelter. He then traveled to Brownsville, Texas, where he met with more law enforcement officials, as well as Border Patrol veteran Raul Ortiz, who on Saturday takes over as the agency’s 25th chief.
In a news conference held at the Border Patrol’s Fort Brown Station next to the Veterans International Bridge, Mayorkas told media that he is fully aware of the situation at the South Texas-Mexico border and that the Biden administration is working to implement meaningful plans to address concerns about a rise of COVID-19 cases among migrant families who are being released by DHS. But he said there is no quick fix and he intends to roll out more solutions in the coming days.
“The situation at the border is one of the toughest challenges we face. It is complicated, changing and involves a vulnerable population at a time of global pandemic,” Mayorkas said. “But we know the challanges and we will have a plan to beat the challenges. That is what we do: We confront challenges.”
The biggest challenge, he admitted, is the sheer number of migrant families, unaccompanied children and single adults attempting to cross the Southwest border right now. And he released July apprehension figures that showed there were 212,672 encounters on the Southwest border, which is a 13% increase from June, and a 20-year-high. He added that 27% of all encounters in July were of individuals who had previously tried to cross the border.
An average of 20,000 migrants per week are crossing into the Rio Grande Valley, several border leaders told Border Report.
Mayorkas laid out four pillars that the Biden administration is tackling on the Southwest border, which include:
- Addressing the root causes of migration from Central America and other countries where immigrants are now coming from, which includes investing U.S. dollars in these countries.
- Rebuilding “safe and orderly pathways” for migrants to apply for asylum without having to take the journey North.
- Improving security and processing of migrants at the border
- Dismantling human smuggling operations and trans national criminal organizations.
Mayorkas hinted that a mobile cellphone asylum application process, similar to the process that migrants who had been in the Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico” program, had used to transfer out of the program, could soon be operational to discourage migrants from physically coming. And still allow them to apply for asylum via an online portal.
He also told leaders in McAllen during the roundtable meeting that the agency is looking to put up “soft-sided facilities” that could help house some of the migrants. These could be put up in Laredo, but it is uncertain whether DHS officials would test and quarantine and help to treat migrants
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz was at Thursday morning’s meeting and afterwards he told Border Report that he is not keen on a soft-sided structure or the addition of migrants with coronavirus remaining in his South Texas community of 250,000.
“Basically for us any structure that does not alleviate the hospital situation that we have hurts us more than helps. We really can’t have a population over and above ours that will be competing for hospital beds,” Saenz said.
Laredo has refused to accept migrants bussed by DHS from the Rio Grande Valley because upwards of 40% tested positive for coronavirus and the city has no more ICU hospital beds and is running out of hospital rooms. The city has hired charter buses at a cost of $8,000 to $10,000 per day to transport 200 migrants brought from the RGV to Austin and Houston, Saenz said.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told Border Report that he appreciates Mayorkas’ visit but he also is concerned about the immediate health of the nearly 1 million residents in his border county. And he said he asked the secretary “point blank” to stop releasing migrant families into his community.
“I have a water leak and it’s gushing and I need a plumber to stop it. But what you have been proposing is to send people with mops for the water. But the flow is still coming. So the only way that I know to stop the flow is to put a moratorium on asylum-seekers,” Cortez said.
Cortez said the number of migrants in Hidalgo County testing positive for coronavirus is at 16% — double that of a week ago. He said 25 migrants are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.
The number of hospital beds is shrinking fast in Hidalgo County, he said, as more residents come down with the virus. This includes 37 pediatric patients currently hospitalized for coronavirus, including 14 children in ICU.
“These are serious, serious numbers,” Cortez said. “He said they’re working on trying to find a solution. He was not specific. So we’re just going to wait and see. So I said ‘This is urgent. We need immediate action.'”
This is urgent. We need immediate action.”Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez
Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, was to have two meetings with Mayorkas. He said in addition to touring the park with her, he intended to sit down with her Thursday afternoon.
Pimentel told Border Report that they had a good meeting on Thursday morning.
Her organization runs the Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen, which has seen an increase in coronavirus cases and which reached capacity recently, prompting it to reach out to local officials for help. That is when Anzalduas Park was opened and quickly filled up with over 1,000 migrants of all ages.
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, whose hometown is Laredo and represents a sprawling district along the South Texas-Mexico border, said he was relieved the Biden administration sent a top official, after weeks of requests. But he said more action is needed and Mexico needs to act quickly.
“I want to thank him for being here because it’s not only (listening to) the immigration activists, but it’s also listening to the border communities,” Cuellar said.
“The bottom line is Mexico, our neighbors to the south can do more,” Cuellar said in a news conference after the morning roundtable. “You cannot play defense on the 1-yard line here on the U.S.-Mexico border, you’re going to lose out. You need to play on the Southern border (of Mexico).”
Mayorkas last visited the RGV on May 7 during a surge in unaccompanied migrant children. And during his visit on Thursday he repeatedly referenced how tough getting a handle on that situation was, but he said with diligent planning and dedicated execution they managed to put in place a system whereby the children are safely and orderly tested for coronavirus, processed and transferred to the care of the Department of Health and Human Services in a matter of hours — not days, as had been occurring.
“We are facing a serious challenge at our Southern border,” Mayorkas said. “But we will rise to the challenge and we will do so with our heroic workforce, our expertise, our plans and our execution of our plans.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com