HARLINGEN — The city’s community center might soon become a backup shelter for Central American migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

Meanwhile, for asylum-seeking migrants testing positive for the coronavirus, Loaves & Fishes staff are booking hotel rooms before they catch buses or planes into the United States.

Some officials are calling on the U.S. Border Patrol to test migrants for COVID-19 before dropping them off at bus stations, Josh Ramirez, Harlingen’s public health director, said Tuesday.

Today, city commissioners are set to consider turning the community center on Madison Avenue into a “stand-by” shelter in case Loaves and Fishes runs out of room to house migrants seeking asylum in the United States.

On Feb. 18, the Border Patrol released 49 migrants to Loaves and Fishes, which found eight testing positive for the virus, Bill Reagan, the agency’s executive director, said, adding his staff took the infected migrants to hotel rooms.

The next day, 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 group into about 20 hotel rooms.

“We can only accommodate inside the building people who have tested negative,” Reagan said, adding grant money is covering the cost of testing.

At Loaves and Fishes, Reagan said he’s trying to protect residents who come for free meals, the homeless who stay in its shelter and his staff.

“The risk of bringing COVID into the building is too great,” he said.

Last month, city commissioners set aside $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.

During a meeting last month, City Commissioner Richard Uribe raised concern migrants testing positive for COVID-19 could pose a public health threat.

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

Brownsville migrant testing

In the last two weeks, the Border Patrol has released about 1,825 Central American migrants at the Brownsville bus station, where the city’s emergency management officials have found about 141 have tested positive for the coronavirus, Felipe Romero, the city’s spokesman said.

“We ensure migrants are rapid-tested at the bus station,” he said, adding the Texas Division of Emergency Management is funding the cost of rapid-test kits. “We help them communicate with their families in regards to getting them to their destination.”

From there, migrants’ family members help them catch buses or planes into the United States.

“We can’t detain them,” Romero said. “They’re made aware of their positive test results and then we give them recommendations provided by the CDC in terms of social distancing and quarantine. They don’t really stay long — they’re in and out.”

Harlingen city officials are opening the Harlingen Community Center which will serve as a stand by shelter to handle Loaves and Fishes possible overflow of incoming migrants. (Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

Call for Border Patrol testing

Meanwhile, some officials believe the Border Patrol should test migrants for COVID-19 then hold them in quarantine.

“They should receive the medical care they need,” Ramirez said.

Under the federal government’s system, testing migrants for COVID-19 “is almost useless,” Reagan said.

“These people have been in close quarters with each other and are taking off in a bus or airplane,” he said.

Migrants leaving Matamoros camp

For about two years, thousands of Central American migrants have waited in a Matamoros camp after former President Donald Trump refused to allow them entry into the United States.

Now, the U.S. government is allowing 100 Central American migrants a day to cross the border, Romero said.

Since Feb. 25, about 327 migrants have entered the United States, he said.

In Matamoros, a non-profit group is testing the migrants for COVID-19 before they’re allowed to the cross the border, he said.

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