ANZALDUAS — In an effort to find a more permanent solution for the lack of capacity for the growing number of migrants, local officials set up a new emergency shelter in Anzalduas Park to temporarily house migrants who tested positive for COVID-19.

Hidalgo County Judge Ricard Cortez rubs his eye as he speaks about the immigrants being housed in tents at Anzalduas Park during a press conference there Thursday in Mission. (Joel Martinez | [email protected])

A 650-capacity shelter is now located at the 15-acre park after its use was authorized by Hidalgo County Precinct 3 Commissioner Everardo “Ever” Villarreal on Wednesday as a way to alleviate the large number of asylum seekers who were being released from federal custody.

When migrants previously tested positive for COVID-19, volunteers with the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley transported the individual and their families to a local hotel that the charity rented to quarantine them.

But lately, because of the continued increase in migrant arrivals and the rising COVID positivity rate, that hasn’t been a feasible option.

“Because of the very high volume of immigrants that are coming here, we’ve reached a point of capacity,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez said during a news conference at the park Thursday. “In the past, capacity was not an issue, we were able to handle these immigrants in a safe, secure way without interfering with any one of our local citizens, but that situation changed and we had to create additional capacity.”

Before moving the shelter to Anzalduas Park, the city of McAllen temporarily set up an emergency shelter for the COVID positive migrants on city property located on the southeast corner of 23rd Street and Trophy Drive.

The city commissioners approved the setup Tuesday but by Wednesday, the city announced the shelter was being relocated to Hidalgo County Precinct 3.

“We had about a 24-hour notice from Catholic Charities that their capacity was at full and that we were having problems and concerns about being able to handle the COVID positive immigrants,” McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez said. “As you know, they had been able to house them throughout the Valley and that was no longer an option, and so we decided to pick a site that was city-owned because it made it easy.”

The decision on where to place the new shelter was a complex one affected by the urgency of the situation.

“That property there on 23rd is city-owned and we chose it within an hour, but immediately as we were erecting that facility, we were also having discussions with other entities to see what other location would be more suitable,” Rodriguez said about the change in locations. “We were lucky enough to think of this location and we reached out to the county who agreed, almost immediately, to do so.”

Villarreal, the Precinct 3 county commissioner, said the park was a perfect location for the shelter because of its natural barriers, but called on the federal government to enact more permanent solutions.

“Boat rides need to stop,” Villarreal said. “We need to have creative, common sense solutions to solve this problem that is having an impact on the safety and health of our Hidalgo County residents.”

The asylum seekers who are kept there and the family members who choose to stay with them will be kept there until they test negative for COVID-19, according to Bishop Daniel E. Flores of the Catholic Diocese of Brownsville, who also spoke at the news conference.

“What we have found here is a creative solution, it’s not the best solution in the long run but it is the best solution that I think we can do right now which is to continue to treat, with great humanity, persons who have been confided into our care by the federal government,” Flores said. “If (the respite center) were not here, the question would be where would these families go? And unfortunately, the answer may be under a bridge or on a street, mothers and children.”

Although the asylum seekers cannot be forced to stay at the shelter, just like citizens who test positive for COVID cannot be forced to remain in quarantine, officials will still make efforts to keep them there.

During business hours, the office of Precinct 3 Constable Lazaro “Larry” Gallardo Jr. will be patrolling the park, which is closed to the public, to ensure no one enters or leaves without authorization.

In the evenings, security services contracted by the city of McAllen will take over those duties. Rodriguez, the city manager, clarified that while the contract for those services is with the city, they are being paid for by either Catholic Charities or by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The city of McAllen has an agreement with FEMA for certain expenses,” Rodriguez said. “When we were asked to help with the testing and facilitating of the immigrants at the respite center, we asked that these functions and processes be pre-funded for a lot of reasons.”

“They agreed and so we have had this funding for some time and we’re able to reimburse the city of McAllen for these expenses so it’s coming directly from FEMA,” he said, adding that, so far, the city had spent approximately $106,000.

“That’s actually a low number compared to what we’ve seen in the past and the reason is because of that agreement we have with FEMA,” Rodriguez said. “FEMA has already paid $1.5 million for the operation and that is coming directly from FEMA.”

Although the county park is not technically located within the city of Mission, it is located within Mission’s extraterritorial jurisdiction. In light of that, the Mission City Council unanimously approved a disaster declaration to enable the use of city resources if necessary.

“We are going to be secondary and we’re probably going to be on a triage area and outside the perimeter of the facility,” Mission Mayor Armando O’Caña said, “supporting our federal partners, supporting our state partners and supporting our county partners.”

The need for the extra capacity and resources comes as the number of COVID-19 cases in the county and the state continues to climb, but health officials tried to dispel misconceptions that migrant arrivals were the driving cause of the current pandemic wave.

While the asylum seekers do bring COVID-19, so does anyone else traveling to the area, whether migrants or citizens, said Dr. Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority.

During a news conference Thursday morning, Melendez said the positivity rate among the migrants wasn’t any higher than it was among the general population and said they were not filling up our local hospitals.

“Are they the problem? No. Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Melendez said.

“We have a responsibility to recognize that the issue of COVID is not because there are immigrants amongst us,” Flores said, urging the public to take advantage of the readily available COVID vaccines.

“It’s not just something that is happening here in the Valley, it’s happening in Houston, it’s happening in San Antonio, it’s happening in Dallas,” Flores said, “and we have to be responsible in terms of how we help one another.”

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Photo Gallery: Migrant camp moved: Anzalduas Park new site of emergency shelter