NEW YORK – Catholic leaders in the busiest part of Texas for U.S.-Mexico border crossings fear a new executive order from Governor Greg Abbott, which bars non-government vehicles from transporting migrants in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, could have precisely the opposite effect.
“It’s definitely going to have very serious consequences and keep us from helping the community stay safe, because we’re not able to help these families [that test positive for COVID-19] isolate and quarantine,” Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, told Crux.
“I foresee things getting very bad because of this,” Pimentel said.
The Humanitarian Respite Center, run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, is often the first place U.S. Customs and Border Protection brings migrant families that cross the border.
Before migrants enter the respite center, they’re tested for COVID-19 nearby. Those who test negative go to the respite center where they are provided food, clothes, medicine, rest and other essentials before they continue on to the next leg of their journey.
Migrants who test positive are brought to certain hotels in the area CCRGV has arranged to quarantine until they test negative. In that circumstance, there are doctors and nurses that check on them regularly, and volunteers that drop off any essentials the families need so that “the family remains in isolation and not out in the community,” Pimentel said.
Now that Abbott’s executive order potentially prevents the respite center from bringing COVID-19 positive migrants to the designated quarantine locations, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville says, “They risk infecting other people,” which is “why it’s counterproductive.”
The executive order, signed by Abbott July 28, mandates that only federal, state, and local law enforcement officials are permitted to provide ground transportation to migrants that are detained by CBP at the border.
It directs government officials to stop and reroute any vehicle “back to its point of origin” if the violation is confirmed. If the driver doesn’t comply, law enforcement officials are authorized to impound the vehicle.
Abbott touted the executive order as a measure that “will reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in our communities.” It comes at a time when local officials in Laredo and Hidalgo County have alleged migrants released from CBP custody are spreading COVID-19 in their communities, although there is no concrete evidence to suggest that’s the case.
However, COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Texas at the same time border crossings are increasing.
Pimentel said the number of people CBP brings to the respite center on a daily basis has steadily increased of late. Daily, she said, they regularly see 800-900 people at the respite center. Sometimes they will reach 1,000, and it has spiked around 1,100, she added.
Pimentel explained that they reached that 1,100 mark on July 26, at which point she asked CBP not to bring anymore migrants because they had reached capacity.
“That’s where we are right now, mostly trying to manage those numbers, which are definitely significantly higher than usual,” Pimentel said. “I think we’re managing it. We just hope that we can continue to help as many people as possible that are released.”
Pimentel noted that during the latest uptick, the percentage of migrants who test positive for COVID-19 has also increased from about four percent earlier in the pandemic to 10-11 percent, but she maintains the migrants aren’t the reason for the latest spike in south Texas.
“It’s unfortunate. It’s false,” Pimentel said. “It’s misinformation, because it is not them. Since day one of the pandemic, our protocol has been established to make sure that no immigrant goes around without being tested, so that they’re not going around spreading COVID-19.”
“Unfortunately, we want to blame a group of people who more than anything are victims of a society that is failing them and what they need is protection and care,” she continued. “It’s unfortunate that we want to blame immigrants for the fact that [COVID-19] is here.”
The executive order from Abbott is the latest action in a hardline immigration approach that’s put Abbott at odds with the federal government. In response to the executive order, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland called it “both dangerous and unlawful,” and claimed it “violates federal law in numerous respects.”
In a response to Garland yesterday, Abbott blamed the Biden administration’s loosening of immigration policies and lack of COVID-19 mitigation strategies at the border for the present COVID-19 spike.
“These irresponsible policies and actions by the Biden administration are endangering the lives of many Americans, as well as the unlawful immigrants themselves,” Abbott said in a statement.
Pimentel acknowledged that she has raised the concern and tried to understand why CBP doesn’t test migrants when they first encounter them at the border. To her understanding that isn’t an option, which is why they ensure every migrant who’s dropped off is tested.
In response to a question from Crux about its COVID-19 protocols, a CBP spokesperson said in an email that it provides PPE and requires masks at all times, and transfers anyone showing signs of illness to the local health system. COVID-19 testing was not mentioned.
Flores likened the current back and forth on immigration between the federal government and Texas state government as a “turf battle” that should not impede the work of the church.
The bishop noted that no matter the policies of the government, the Church’s role won’t change.
“[The church] has to deal with the human reality in front of us and I’m not going to get involved in that battle for jurisdiction,” Flores said. “They need to figure this out, but in the meantime people sort of get crunched, and the church’s job is to make that as humane as possible.”
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