Texas communities and border agents scramble to shelter migrants amid COVID-19 concerns
Rio Grande Valley — Seemingly overnight earlier this month, a park in the border city of McAllen, Texas, was transformed into a temporary tent city as local officials struggled to shelter an overwhelming number of migrants who had been released from U.S. custody after being processed by border agents.
On August 2, the city's mayor issued a disaster declaration, prompting the nonprofit Catholic Charities to erect a makeshift encampment downtown. The camp soon moved to Anzalduas Park, a nature walk along the Rio Grande River that is now home to approximately 1,000 migrants, including children as young as 9 days old.
Communities like McAllen along the U.S.-Mexico border are scrambling to house a growing number of migrants seeking legal asylum in the U.S. who are released to await immigration court hearings. Buses driven by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) dropped off a record-breaking 11,026 migrants in McAllen last week, an average of 1,575 people per day. When they arrive, they're tested for COVID-19 under a gazebo, quarantined next to a playground and cared for in the open air.
McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos said he wasn't "100% sure" how the situation got so dire. "The numbers went from 500 to 600 a day. Soon afterwards, 1,000 a day. And then an excess of 1,500," the newly elected city executive recalled.
Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told CBS News that the region's network of churches and nonprofits could manage the high numbers at first. After Catholic Charities ran out of beds, the city began booking hotel rooms. "But what I am struggling with now are the COVID positives," Pimentel said.
"I did not have enough rooms to place new families in isolation," Pimentel continued. "So that's when we said to Mayor Villalobos that we have a problem here. I don't think by tomorrow I'm going to be able to contain this within our respite center. So I need help."
Churches throughout the Rio Grande Valley have opened their doors to migrants this summer in response to the city's call. "They told me, 'The mayor wants to get you on a Zoom call,'" recalled Father Roy Snipes, parish priest of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one city over in Mission, Texas.
"Some of the city managers said the respite center — the Catholic Charities center — and McAllen just can't hold the numbers that are coming right now. And, 'What do you think we should do?' Of course, I got the hint," Snipes chuckled. "I said, I guess we should open up the Guadeloupe. We've got a beautiful hall, beautiful playground, and we got all those big classrooms. That was the beginning of the story for us at the beginning of our response."
The parish used its empty schoolhouse as a makeshift shelter for the overflow of families coming across the Southwest border. But when a volunteer tested positive for COVID-19 last month, the facility was forced to shut down. Snipes said one of the migrants then tested positive when they reopened. "That really messed things up. But we'll just do what we can do," he said, adding that he is committed to reopening.
The number of COVID-positive cases from across the border is relatively small in the context of Texas' latest surge, which is fueled by low vaccination rates, the Delta variant and rolled-back restrictions. This month, Texas health officials warned that intensive care units in at least 53 hospitals had reached maximum capacity, and more than 10,000 Texans are hospitalized with COVID-19.
CBP does not routinely test migrants for the virus prior to their release, leaving the responsibility to localities and charities who can seek reimbursement by the federal government.
On August 4, officials in McAllen said that more than 7,000 out of nearly 88,000 migrants released by CBP in the city since February had tested positive for COVID-19, a positivity rate of more than 8%. But positive tests have become more frequent in recent weeks, approaching a rate that is very similar to the local population.
Last week, 14.8% of migrants released from U.S. custody into the city of McAllen tested positive, compared to Texas' statewide positivity rate of 18.7%, as of Wednesday. Local officials are growing increasingly concerned.
"Initially, I didn't see it as a problem, because it was under control," Villalobos, the mayor, said. "So I saw no correlation between the increase in COVID within our community and the immigrants because they were isolated."
"Now I think there's an issue, because now they're going throughout," he continued, noting that the city cannot force migrant families to quarantine. "Positive or non-positive, they get picked up, and they're going out. And we have no authority to stop it."
"So far the number continues to increase, both in terms of immigrants coming, and the COVID positive rates. So that number hasn't leveled off yet at this point," Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston told McAllen's city commissioners, who voted to extend the emergency declaration Monday night.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas visited Anzalduas Park on Thursday morning. At a press conference later in the day, the secretary told CBS News that the federal government will reimburse local government and nonprofits "for the expenses that they incur" for testing, isolating and quarantining.
"The park is outdoors and the safest way in which we can accomplish that testing in isolation," Mayorkas said. The secretary insisted that the federal government is actively searching for more resources to "[build] processes to make sure that migrants are tested, cohorted during transportation, isolated in quarantine as necessary."
Border Patrol is also expanding the nearby "temporary outdoor processing site" on a stretch of gravel, grass and dirt under the Anzalduas International Bridge that stretches into Mexico. CBP processes hundreds of migrants under the bridge everyday before many are transported on buses a mile west to the park. Families who will be expelled to Mexico under a public health authority known as Title 42 are also sorted at the site.
"Certainly, those aren't the conditions that we would like to house or detain somebody for more than a few hours," incoming U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told CBS News. "What we're trying to do is expedite our processing there as quickly as we possibly can."
Drone footage captured by CBS News shows Border Patrol has installed rows of benches, soft-sided tents, tables, dozens of porta-potties, handwashing stations and a baby changing table under the bridge since March. On Monday, the ACLU called on the Biden administration to "immediately close the site and implement oversight measures to ensure Border Patrol no longer holds anyone under such inhumane conditions."
U.S. border agents made more than 210,000 arrests in July, the highest number of apprehensions in 21 years. Encounters of unaccompanied children topped 19,000 last month, an all-time monthly high, according to a senior Department of Homeland Security official.
"I will tell you about two weeks ago, we really saw probably some of our highest numbers in custody — over 20,000 people within Border Patrol facilities or underneath the Anzalduas Bridge," Ortiz said. He predicted a new CBP processing site in the Rio Grande Valley will come online early next year.
Border Patrol is also dealing with COVID-19 in its ranks. Ortiz said 400 border patrol agents remain in "quarantine status," out of a force of nearly 20,000. At least eight agents have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic.
"We recognize that there's a limited capacity from the health perspective. There's probably a shortage of doctors. There's probably a shortage of hospital beds," Ortiz said. "So we are awfully concerned about compounding those issues that these local communities are dealing with. And we recognize when you have on any given day between five and six thousand people coming across the border, that some of them are going to be sick somewhere."
For now, that somewhere remains a closed-off park, where families receive meals and medication in open-air tents, children take turns on the playground and everyone is encouraged to remain outside during the day, despite the heat.
"I'm glad this response is here and that more are joining this effort," Pimentel, of Catholic Charities, told CBS News. "But I'm certainly hoping that the federal government can step up and say, 'We'll take over.' That they'll say, 'What else do you need so we can do this right?'"
Villalobos, the McAllen mayor, said, "At the end of the day, we're trying our best."
"Border Patrol drops them off and that's it. It's our responsibility," he added, pausing. "Well, it shouldn't be our responsibility. But we have to protect them. We have to protect our residents."
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