Originally Publshed in Newsweek
Nicole Fallert - March 5, 2021
Republican Governor Greg Abbott of Texas blamed President Joe Biden for the spread of COVID-19, just days after he lifted the state's mask mandate and other pandemic safety restrictions.
"[Biden] is bringing in illegal immigrants into the state of Texas and then releasing them, and many of whom have COVID," Abbott said in a press conference Friday. "The president and his administration need to step up and stop this program. First of promoting illegal immigration, but second, allowing people who are coming to this country, to spread COVID across the entire country."
Abbott didn't provide any evidence that migrants are spreading the virus through Texas or other states.
Both Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and some nonprofit groups are testing migrants before they are released into the United States. Asylum-seekers who have been waiting to re-enter the country under Trump's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) cannot return if they have a positive result.
Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas additionally confirmed ICE's testing efforts for migrants brought into U.S. custody. Should someone test positive for COVID, they are quarantined before their case is processed. Migrants who test positive are not accepted back by Mexico.
After they are released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), migrants are taken to bus stations for transport to their destinations and are again rapid-tested. As an added measure, the CEO of Greyhound also demanded this week that undocumented immigrants must show proof they are COVID-19 negative before boarding buses to their destinations.
"The migrants who test positive at the B-Metro facility are advised of quarantine procedures and are asked to socially distance," Felipe Romero, director of communications and marketing for the city of Brownsville in South Texas confirmed in an email to Newsweek. "There are several NGOs providing resources to a positive case. For example, organizations help with quarantine either in a shelter or at a hotel."
Romero confirmed 173 migrants had tested positive in the city as of publication date, and a total of 2,099 migrants had been dropped off for bus transit at the city's station. Brownsville Mayor Juan "Trey" Mendez III told CNN the positivity rate among migrants in the city was just over 6 percent. In February, Texas' positivity rate was 11 percent according to Johns Hopkins University.
To Abbott, the positive cases are a litmus of Biden's immigration policy.
"The unconscionable act by the Biden administration of releasing COVID-positive illegal immigrants in our state puts the lives of Texans and Americans at risk," Abbott said in a statement posted to Twitter Thursday. "The federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have COVID."
Texas and federal leaders are now in tension over managing the testing of the thousands of migrants arriving at the southwest border. The burden of testing and care has largely been falling on local infrastructure. The Texas Division of Emergency Management confirmed to CNN that since the start of January, the state has provided 40,000 COVID-19 tests in key border towns.
"The [Brownsville] health care system has been impacted more harshly that other areas of the state predominantly because our community is more vulnerable due to their illnesses such as hypertension," Romero said. "Our case fatality rate has been three times higher than the national average. It's those severe cases that have impacted our local health care systems the hardest."
A statement from a DHS spokesperson to CNN said that when the Biden administration asked local Texas authorities for support to keep up with testing demand, Abbott denied the help. Abbott has said it's not the state's "job" to test migrants.
"Instead of doing their job, the Biden administration suggested it did not have the sufficient resources, and, remarkably asked Texas to assist them in aiding their illegal immigration program," he said in the tweet Thursday, adding that Texas refuses to support policy that "makes our country a magnet for illegal immigration."
Biden has championed an effort to dismantle former President Donald Trump's immigration policy. Mayorkas said during a press conference Monday the entire immigration system was "gutted" and "rebuilt virtually from scratch" since the start of the new administration, which is still asking for "time" to fully implement its developing policy.
A key part of Biden's revamped approach was to repeal MPP, which previously forced migrants to wait in Mexico while asylum cases were processed. Biden has been met with criticism from conservatives that terminating the MPP could lead to huge surges of migrants crossing the border — or a "magnet," as Abbot said.
And now the Biden administration is beginning to process the 25,000 asylum seekers who were forced to wait under Trump's program and have active court cases in the U.S. Mayorkas warned this doesn't translate to an open border for all migrants. He made the administration's message clear: "Please don't come."
Mayorkas confirmed to reporters that families and individuals are in fact being turned away at the border in order to comply with the CDC's Title 42 guidance, which prohibits people to enter the U.S. from countries where "quarantinable communicable disease exists."
Newsweek reached out to DHS, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and Abbott's office for comment on the treatment of COVID-19-positive migrants.