HIDALGO COUNTY, Texas (CBSDFW.COM) - Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, Sister Norma Pimentel said an incident where a La Joya police officer approached a COVID-sticken migrant family at Whataburger was an "isolated case."
"The La Joya incident is an isolated case, in a new location we had just begun to use. This one incident has caused a great deal of misinformation and unfortunately serious consequences that threaten our community with catastrophic outcomes if we can't continue to isolate and care for the families," said Pimentel in a statement to CBS 11 News.
Isolated or not, it was the COVID positive status of the family, and their alleged "disregard to other people's health," that led to the police department of the small town along the Rio Grande and Mexican border issuing a public health announcement. On July 26 the police department shared details of the incident. They said a concerned citizen at the restaurant waved down an officer. The citizen told him about the family "coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths and not wearing face masks." Whataburger management also told the officer that they wanted the group to leave as well due to "their disregard to other people's health."
In addition to telling the officer that Border Patrol had released them days prior due to their coronavirus status, the family said a charity group had paid for their room at the nearby Texas Inn Hotel. The officer followed up on that information, finding out that Catholic Charities of The Rio Grande Valley had booked all the rooms in the hotel to house undocumented immigrants detained by Border Patrol. He said he saw a group of 20 to 30 people staying at the hotel who were "out and about." Most of them weren't wearing masks either, according to the officer.
But Pimentel said, "At no time have the COVID positive immigrant families walked around exposing others in the community. They are kept in isolation until they test negative."
The non-profit tests every person for COVID before releasing them into the community, according to Pimentel, and a low percentage test positive. That doesn't mean undocumented individuals don't already have COVID when they are placed by Border Patrol with the non-profit. In fact, La Joya police said they learned that Border Patrol was quarantining other undocumented individuals who were COVID positive, or showed symptoms of illness, then handing them over to the non-profit. Catholic Charities would in turn place the undocumented individuals in hotels in the McAllen area as well as La Joya.
"We take the necessary measures to make sure the families who have a family member test COVID positive are isolated with their family in hotels designated for quarantine," explained Pimentel. "Even though most of the family often tests COVID negative, mostly, the family chooses to remain together with the family member that tests COVID positive. These individuals remain in isolation until they test negative. In the meantime, we provide the care the family needs so that they do not have to leave their room."
But that didn't happen on July 26.
The incident has sparked controversy about the current border situation, and its impact on both the community and immigrants. Pimentel called on state and local leaders to reconsider their actions and to work with the non-profit to help both long-term community members or newcomers fleeing violence.
"Any law or policy that contributes to human suffering is wrong and needs to be corrected," she said.
Pimentel didn't comment on the police department's allegation that the organization didn't tell them that they were placing COVID stricken people at the Texas Inn Hotel.
Read her full statement below:
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