In the past 48 hours, local and federal authorities mobilized to respond to an increase in people entering the U.S. illegally through the Rio Grande Valley, overwhelming resources and prompting Hidalgo County to call on the federal government to stop releasing migrants with COVID-19.
An audibly frustrated Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez spoke candidly Tuesday about the requests for assistance to manage migrant accommodations and COVID-19 precautions, issues he believes are connected and require immediate resolve to prevent the spread of what local officials just a few weeks ago termed “a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Such is his concern that Cortez asked the federal government on Tuesday to stop releasing migrants who test positive for COVID-19, while simultaneously asking Gov. Greg Abbott to return the authority to implement safety mandates, like using masks in public.
“It was manageable last week. We did not have problems at all that I was aware of,” Cortez said Tuesday evening. “Now, my understanding is that the Catholic Charities — who was taking over the responsibility of testing the immigrants, isolated them if they tested positive, they put them in the hospital if they were very sick — …reached their capacity.
“So now there’s no buffer between the federal agencies and us because Catholic Charities has reached capacity and there’s no other entity available. I’m telling them you have to stop it, because we don’t want people that have COVID to be endangering our communities.”
The request came a day after McAllen’s largest migrant shelter, the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s respite center, reached capacity and could not accommodate all migrants released from federal custody.
Other previously designated overflow shelters had to be called upon to assist, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, a church in Mission, which took in 300 people Monday and as many Tuesday.
Then there was the lawsuit the city of Laredo filed earlier this month against the Department of Homeland Security and Webb County’s disaster declaration. That led to a temporary halt in migrant transfers from the Valley to that area in order to ease overcrowding there.
Asked whether Hidalgo County would consider a similar declaration, Cortez said he was uncertain how taking such action would be beneficial.
CONCERNS RISE LOCALLY
Local communities became concerned about migrants with COVID-19 after a post on social media said people were coughing and sneezing at a La Joya eatery.
The chatter started with a social media statement from the La Joya Police Department on Monday that indicated a resident reported the situation to law enforcement authorities.
“The citizen explained to the officer that she had observed a family group who were not being observant of proper health guidelines,” the police department wrote on Facebook in a statement. “She stated that the family was coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths and were not wearing face masks.”
Those who test positive for COVID-19, or if a family member is positive, the whole family is placed under quarantine in local hotels by Catholic Charities, a practice that’s been in place for months.
Three days ago, a hotel in La Joya agreed to take in some families placed under quarantine, and some of the migrants walked from the hotel over to the Whataburger on the same block.
The restaurant’s management told the police officer they wanted the people to leave, “due to their disregard to other people’s health,” police said in the post.
Texas Inn Hotel management told officers their rooms were all booked by Catholic Charities to house quarantined migrants. But the police statement noted the city was not made aware of that decision, and contacted the Hidalgo County Health and Human Services office for assistance.
During the visit, officers noticed about 20 to 30 others were outside, some without face masks.
Hotel owner Sam Patel told The Monitor on Tuesday staff only recently began taking in migrants under quarantine three days ago.
While Monday’s incident was the first of its kind, Patel was quick to address it.
“So, the police came and said, ‘Hey, just tell everybody to stay inside,’” he said. “They came and told us to make sure they stay inside.”
Masked staff carted cleaning products from room to room Tuesday morning, and families were waiting for meals to be delivered to their rooms.
“We’re doing everything, cleaning, sanitizing, and the Salvation Army is going door to door to give them breakfast to everybody,” Patel said.
Other meals were also delivered throughout the day to prevent the need for families to step outside.
Still, the incident stirred tension in the community, leading La Joya police to hold a news conference Tuesday evening with authorities reiterating the same concerns shared in their statement.
‘PAY ATTENTION TO THIS SITUATION’
More migrants are currently being released by Border Patrol after the agency experienced an increase in the number of people the agency held in custody over the weekend.
Around 7,000 migrants were held in overcrowded facilities across the Valley on Sunday, which represents about double the holding capacity. An emergency meeting was called in the Valley that day to address the mounting challenges to process and release them within the 72-hour limit.
By Monday, the agency held about 14,000 migrants in custody across the southern border. Still facing challenges on ways to relieve stress on their system, agency officials proposed closing down certain checkpoints and Border Patrol stations across the southern border.
It remains unclear which checkpoints — the largest in the country being in Falfurrias — would be affected.
The proposal requires approval from the agency’s headquarters in D.C., but U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, said Monday he was doubtful it would gain approval.
All this comes as COVID-19 figures continue to rise in Hidalgo County.
“We have been doing well as a community in slowing the spread of this deadly virus,” Cortez said in a news release Tuesday. “But ill-conceived policies by both the federal and state governments are beginning to have serious consequences on Hidalgo County.
It’s unclear whether migrants released from Border Patrol or Immigration Customs and Enforcement detention centers are contributing to the number of positive cases in the community.
However, migrants staying in detention centers close to the Valley account for about 30% of active COVID-19 cases in ICE custody.
“My understanding is that Border Patrol was releasing immigrants to the bus station in McAllen, and that Border Patrol at the checkpoints said they just might abandon these checkpoints,” Cortez said Tuesday. “We’re still gathering information, but it’s still leading to … a point of oversaturation. We just have more than we can handle, and it’s putting our citizens in danger.
“We’ve halted central travel to people from Mexico because of COVID, yet we have no system to determine what the capacity is for the number of immigrants. The federal government needs to pay attention to this situation.”
Cortez also called on Abbott to restore the county’s ability to implement safety measures in light of increased COVID-19 activity that he said “is beginning to tax local resources.”
And though he has yet to receive a direct response from the governor, he may have already gotten his answer.
“The time for government mask mandates is over—now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott said Tuesday on Twitter: “In May, I signed an executive order prohibiting mask mandates by gov’t entities.”
Abbott also responded to the increase in illegal crossings Tuesday by ordering national guardsmen to assist Texas Department of Public Safety troopers with arresting migrants who trespass or break any state laws.
The governor’s order, however, will currently not be enforced in the Valley, according to Texas Department of Public Safety officials.
HUMANITARIAN NEEDS REMAIN
“I don’t know where Gov. Abbott got the idea that we should arrest these people when they come and ask us for a piece of bread,” Father Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe said Tuesday morning.
The church, in obedience to scripture, opened their doors months ago to the “poor banished children of Eve,” as Snipes described, referring to a Catholic prayer.
About 300 migrants arrived at the church Monday, and the same amount were expected Tuesday. Only about 200 were sent to their shelter in recent months, but they started noticing an increase in need six weeks ago.
For now, they allow migrants to sleep in the classrooms and gather to dine at the parish hall, but they’re planning contingencies.
“We haven’t done it yet, but we’ve already discussed that in a crunch we could use the dining room as a dormitory and dining room,” Snipes said.
He held a procession Tuesday morning, leading a group of about 100 migrants to a short mass.
Men knelt by the pews and prayed silently before the short mass started. A woman reclined her head against her partner’s shoulder. Children paged through the Bibles while others watched, staring in fascination at Snipes’ dogs and donkey, Candelario, who were inside the chapel.
“Sincerely, I feel blessed to know that they’re receiving us in a way I never expected,” said Jose, 24, an Honduran father traveling with his wife and their 1-year-old.
The couple, raised Catholic, fled violence, unemployment and loss of shelter but arrived in the Valley through their mothers’ prayers, they said.
Before leaving, Jose and his family of three went before Snipes, who offered encouragement and a blessing as they journeyed later that day.
“I feel blessed. I never imagined we would come here,” Jose said, referring to the church, “because I really needed to talk to God and thank him for everything.”
Snipes holds these processions regularly to give the weary a place to rest, spiritually.
“You hear the bells. You come to see the church. You see the picture of the Lady of Guadalupe. The old padresito gives you a hug and a kiss. That’s important,” Snipes said. “We can’t fix everything up. I wish we could.”
He hopes people walk away with lighter loads knowing they’re still welcome in South Texas.
“You’re not despicable and you’re not pests,” Snipes said, referring to the migrants walking into his church. “You’re beautiful sons and daughters of God, and you inspire us.”
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct information about the La Joya police statement remaining on social media.