McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Local leaders say the migrant situation got out of control in a scary way on Monday when the Humanitarian Respite Center went over capacity and began turning people away in the border town of McAllen, Texas, just as the region saw a massive spike in coronavirus cases.
That prompted the Hidalgo County judge to ask Department of Homeland Security officials to stop releasing migrants, and a local congressman reached out to DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to ask him to put a pause on family releases.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced that he was deputizing the National Guard to begin assisting state troopers to make arrests on the border to ease a situation he calls “a crisis.”
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley (CCRGV), which runs the Respite Center, told Border Report on Tuesday that her organization has rallied by getting additional local hotels to take in and help isolate migrants infected with the COVID-19 virus.
“Thank God we have other locations, churches, step up,” Pimentel said from her administrative offices in San Juan, Texas. “I’m working with other people who are stepping up and saying, ‘We can help.'”
That backfired Monday, however, when a hotel that agreed to help house migrants in the town of La Joya reportedly did not contain them inside their rooms. The La Joya Police Department issued a public health warning citing reports that visibly sick migrants had been at a burger joint not wearing masks.
Pimentel told Border Report that the situation “has been corrected” and a security guard was hired at the hotel to keep the migrants inside.
Since the first migrant influx began in May 2014 in McAllen, when a few keen-eyed locals noticed disheveled and disoriented migrants wandering the downtown streets near the bus station after they were dropped off by U.S. Border Patrol agents, the city has managed the fluctuating numbers by relying on nonprofits, like Catholic Charities.
However, McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez on Tuesday characterized the evolving situation in South Texas as dire.
“I think we’re at the worst right now,” Rodriguez told Border Report from his office at City Hall.
“They were literally at capacity and for the first time since I can recall, and I think ever, they actually turned some people away, which basically brings the issue that we’ve been trying to avoid now from the beginning and that is to have immigrants on the street, sleeping on sidewalks and so on,” Rodriguez said.
Pimentel on Monday afternoon asked Border Patrol not to send more migrants, but the buses kept coming. She said that a few churches stepped up and volunteered to house the overflow of uninfected migrants.
One church took in 300 people; the Salvation Army took in 100 more. But it wasn’t enough.
Rodriguez said about two dozen migrants slept on downtown streets overnight as they waited to catch buses to points beyond.
The COVID-19 infection rate for released migrants is over 10% here, making the situation more difficult. The City of Laredo has sued DHS to stop the transfer of migrants from the RGV to that South Texas city because the city’s mayor said he believes they are bringing coronavirus.
On Tuesday, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez called on the federal government to stop releasing migrants into the area, which is suffering a staggering rise in local coronavirus rates.
Cortez also called on Abbott to allow him to re-implement coronavirus prevention protocols, such as a mask mandate.
“Ill-conceived policies by both the federal and state governments are beginning to have serious consequences on Hidalgo County. I call on federal immigration officials to stop releasing infected migrants into our community and I am further calling on Gov. Abbott to return to Hidalgo County the safety tools he took away that would help us slow the spread of this disease,” Cortez said in a statement.
Left, a taxi cab pulls up to Catholic Charities of the RGV’s Humanitarian Respite Center migrant shelter on Tuesday, July 27, 2021, in McAllen, Texas, to ferry migrants. Right, Border Patrol agents continued to drop off migrants Tuesday despite calls Monday that the center had reached capacity. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who represents this region who also is vice chairman of the Homeland Security House Appropriations Subcommittee, told Border Report on Tuesday that he spoke with Cortez and that he echoed concerns. Cuellar said he was putting in a call to Mayorkas to ask DHS “to put a pause” on releasing more migrants into the local community.
“The administration needs to put a pause on this. They need to listen to the men and women in green and blue and prioritize border communities,” Cuellar said via phone.
All of the migrants carry legal papers issued by DHS allowing them to travel and reside in the United States pending their upcoming immigration court hearings. Border Report has reached out to DHS officials to ask if they will curtail family releases. This story will be updated if the agency responds.
On Tuesday morning, Border Report witnessed two buses full of dozens of migrants being dropped off at the Humanitarian Respite Center. They were first sent across the street for coronavirus testing by a non-governmental organization hired by Catholic Charities and paid by the City of McAllen.
The city has spent over $97,000 in coronavirus testing of migrants, Rodriguez said Tuesday, adding that the city hopes to get federally reimbursed. But he said it’s more important now to spend the money and to ensure that no infected migrants get released in McAllen.
Pimentel told Border Report that on Monday afternoon there were 1,100 migrants at the Respite Center when it closed its doors to new arrivals. She said there are about 1,000 migrants who are currently isolated in eight to 10 area hotels within a 40-mile distance in the Rio Grande Valley and include locations in Weslaco, Edinburg, Mission and La Joya.
But she noted that does not mean there are 1,000 migrants who have COVID-19 because if one member of a family tests positive then the entire family must quarantine.
When the Humanitarian Respite Center got overcrowded on Monday, Pimentel said they re-tested everyone inside.
“We tested everybody again because we want to make sure our staff and our volunteers feel safe to be inside with the many people we have,” she said.
Cuellar, meanwhile, says he wants the Biden administration to send more support to Border Patrol agents and CBP officers here on the border. He also wants Mayorkas to widely publicize migrant deportations, which he believes would deter migrants from trying to cross the Southwest border from Mexico.
“You have to say you can’t come and show here’s what will happen,” Cuellar said.
He calls the administration’s announcement Monday that it would begin expedited removals of migrant families “a good step and I am glad they are doing it.”
DHS officials did not give details as to where, how or when the expedited removals will begin but said in a statement that “expedited removal provides a lawful, more accelerated procedure to remove those family units who do not have a basis under U.S. law to be in the United States. ”
Said Cuellar: “The bottom line is till they put a hold on these people will keep coming. Till they start returning people and publicizing people being returned people will keep coming. It’s already the end of July and traditionally March, April, June are the high peak months yet it hasn’t stopped.”
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com