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Biden administration and Texas governor battle over COVID testing and treatment of migrants at border

Asylum seekers increase at U.S. southern border
Asylum seekers surge at U.S. southern border amid Biden administration's new policies 02:17

Washington — The Biden administration is offering to reimburse local officials and nonprofits in Texas who are helping migrant families released from U.S. border custody by testing them for COVID-19 and providing them with shelter, according to a Department of Homeland Security memo obtained by CBS News.

But Texas' Republican governor, Greg Abbott, has rejected the proposal, alleging it amounts to an "illegal immigration program."

The DHS memo says that qualified state, local and tribal agencies would be reimbursed for sheltering and COVID-19 testing of migrant parents and children who have been released from Border Patrol custody. It reasons that extended stays in U.S. Border Patrol facilities "are not conducive to the health and well-being of migrant families and adjacent communities." And it goes on to say that DHS' program "mitigates that risk" and would enable communities to conduct the necessary testing and isolation. DHS also promised that there would be "adequate numbers" of U.S. Border Patrol agents on the southern border.

The memo also recommends migrants entering the U.S. undergo rapid antigen testing at sites run by city or county officials and suggests families testing positive should be isolated for 10 days in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. 

And while "congregate sheltering" is not permitted for COVID-19 quarantine, the memo advises that families should be kept together when possible.

Abbott said in a statement to CBS News that Texas would "not aid a program that makes our country a magnet for illegal immigration."'

A DHS spokesperson urged the governor to "reconsider his decision to reject DHS's agreement with the Texan local authorities that would enable the very testing of migrant families that Governor Abbott says he wants."

Abbott had accused the Biden administration of "releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texans to COVID," he said in an interview with CNBC this week. 

"Some of those people have been put on buses, taking that COVID to other states in the United States," he added.

But Brownsville, Texas Mayor Trey Mendez said that out of 1,800 migrants who tested for COVID-19, 108 migrants tested positive for the virus after entering Brownsville, a positivity rate of 6.3%. 

"The positivity rate we're seeing with migrants right now is pretty similar to what we're seeing across the rest of the state," Mendez told CBS News. "It's not as if these people are testing at higher rates or anything like that."

In fact, their rate of infection is actually lower than that of the state, which has averaged about 4,800 daily cases in recent days — a positivity rate of almost 9%.

On Wednesday, Abbott lifted the statewide mask mandate and allowed all businesses to open at 100% of capacity for the first time in nearly a year, welcoming the massive social gatherings at concert halls, sports stadiums and other public venues that have been missing for the last year. According to research released by the CDC Friday, mask mandates were associated with a 1.9% decrease in daily COVID-19 death growth rates 81–100 days after implementation.

To help keep the virus at bay, the Texas Department of Emergency Management issued 10,000 rapid COVID-19 tests to city officials in Brownsville to help with testing for migrants awaiting immigration hearings in the U.S. But Mendez would still like the federal government to take over the testing of asylum-seekers entering the U.S. through Brownsville, and he says he talks to the Biden administration "almost every day about it." 

The disagreement between the governor and the White House about how to handle COVID testing of the asylum seekers has left border mayors in the unenviable position of soliciting help for their cash-strapped cities in the middle of a partisan fight.

"My top request at this point in time is for the administration to test the asylum seekers," Mendez said. "We're getting about 100 per day asylum seekers per day." 

Still, the mayor agrees with DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas' assessment earlier this week, that the influx of undocumented migrants at the U.S. Mexico border has not reached a "crisis" level. 

"I think the biggest reason why it's not a crisis is because the federal government has actually been very, very conscious of the situation," Mendez told reporters Thursday.

One area where the federal government has funneled resources for testing is the migrant camp in Matamoros, Mexico, just across the river from Brownsville. Asylum seekers formerly under the Trump administration's Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) program are now tested by U.S. border officials before entering the U.S., as the federal government works to process as many as 25,000 eligible individuals previously required to wait in Mexico for their immigration court hearings.

In nearby McAllen, Texas, city officials are making use of 6,000 COVID-19 tests granted by the Texas Division of Emergency Management to NGO partners, Sister Norma Pimentel and Catholic Charities, for distribution.

"Border Patrol drops off the migrants at the downtown McAllen bus station, where City of McAllen tents have been set-up and are manned by Catholic Charities volunteers who administer the tests," Xochitl Mora, communications director for the city government, told CBS News. "Those that test positive are quarantined by Catholic Charities in local hotels. The ones that test negative walk across the street to the Catholic Charities respite center for food, shelter, care and processing."

 Pimentel said her charity receives between 100 to 150 families per day and most test negative for Covid-19.

"We want to make sure that everybody, before they even come into my center or a bus or a plane, that they're negative," Pimental told CBS News. We don't want this COVID to be exposed to more people." 

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