Harlingen begins sheltering Central American migrants; shelter finds 8 positive for COVID-19

HARLINGEN — Central American migrants are beginning to stop at a city shelter as they seek asylum in the United States.

Last week, the U.S. Border Patrol began releasing migrants to Loaves and Fishes, which is testing them for the coronavirus while sheltering them as they travel into the United States, Bill Reagan, the shelter’s executive director, said Monday.

“I don’t know how many people it’s going to be or how long it’s going to last,” he said of migrant influx coming out of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. “Our plan is to test everyone who comes.”

So far, Reagan’s staff has taken eight migrants to hotel rooms after they tested positive for COVID-19.

“My goal, if possible, is to keep the virus out of the building,” he said. “It is a challenge. We have people on our staff who are vulnerable to the coronavirus. We have homeless people who are vulnerable to the coronavirus. We have to keep the populations separated.”

Testing for COVID-19

At the shelter, Reagan’s staff is documenting migrants’ names, family groups and hometowns while testing them for the coronavirus.

Last Thursday, the Border Patrol released 49 migrants to the shelter, which found eight positive for the virus, Reagan said.

For now, grant money is covering the cost of testing, he said.

While his staff took the eight migrants infected with virus to hotel rooms, the rest stayed in cots in the shelter’s lobby, he said.

Then on Friday, Border Patrol agents released 26 migrants to Loaves and Fishes at about 5 p.m., leaving the shelter’s staff without time to test them for the virus, he said, adding workers booked the groups into about 20 hotel rooms.

By Monday, the migrants had checked out of the hotel rooms, he said.

After staying in Harlingen, the migrants are leaving the area to await their immigration court dates.

“Family members usually buy them their ticket,” Reagan said. “Some get a bus ticket, some get a plane ticket.”

Short-staffed

So far, Reagan’s hired a full-time staffer and two part-time workers to help manage the influx.

“We could handle, if we had to, 40 people a day,” Reagan said. “The challenge we’re going to face is adequate staffing.”

Border Patrol releasing migrants with asylum claims

Now in the Rio Grande Valley, Border Patrol agents are arresting migrants after they cross the Mexican border, releasing most to human rights groups in McAllen and Brownsville.

“Generally, they let people out in McAllen or Brownsville,” Reagan said. “When there are too many people, they go to Harlingen.”

On Monday, U.S. officials delayed entry to tens of thousands of migrants in Matamoros, Mexico, who have been awaiting U.S. immigration court dates after former President Donald Trump denied their entrance.

City helps fund migrant sheltering

Last week, city commissioners earmarked $50,000 to help Loaves and Fishes feed, shelter and transport migrants while giving City Manager Dan Serna authority to give the agency an additional $25,000 through the end of the year.

“These immigrants are simply passing through our city,” Serna said Monday. “So we’re going to be working with Loaves and Fishes to assist them as they pass through our city toward their destination outside our area.”

Mayor Chris Boswell said the city “to provide some orderly transition.”

“Loaves and Fishes is providing this service to the community to allow these immigrants not to be on the street or at the bus station, which I think is probably better, safer and more orderly to have them there,” he said during a Feb. 17 meeting. “It’s really just an issue of health and safety and trying to provide some orderly transition when they’re in our community.”

During the meeting, Commissioner Richard Uribe expressed concern migrants infected with the virus could enter the general population.

In response, Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez said officials could not require migrants infected with the coronavirus to quarantine.

“We can’t control where they go,” Uribe said. “They can just leave, and they’ll be positive.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com