Gov. Greg Abbott continued blasting President Joe Biden on Thursday, accusing the administration of “recklessly releasing hundreds” of COVID-positive undocumented immigrants into the country, after Biden condemned Abbott’s decision to reopen Texas as “Neanderthal.”
Facing criticism for ending Texas’ mask mandate, Abbott took to Twitter, talk radio and cable news to blame immigrants for the spread of COVID-19 in the state. On CNBC News, he said Biden’s administration was “importing COVID.”
“The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” Abbott said in a tweet Thursday. “The Biden Admin. must IMMEDIATELY end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID.”
Despite Abbott’s claims Thursday, the Department of Homeland Security is reported to be waiting on him to approve the use of Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to help test released migrants for the virus, according to CNN. Abbott had not responded to the administration’s offer of the funding as of Wednesday, according to the report.
Are ‘hundreds’ testing positive?
Abbott’s claim that “hundreds” of undocumented immigrants had tested positive for the coronavirus was based on recent news reports that since the end of January, over 100 asylum-seekers had tested positive with rapid tests immediately after being released by U.S. Custom and Border Protection in Brownsville, according to Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze.
Those immigrants had not been tested before their release, city of Brownsville spokesman Felipe Romero said in an interview. Romero said immigrants are tested by CBP only if they develop severe symptoms and must “go to the hospital.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said the federal government’s policy “is to work with local governments, work with NGOs to ensure these migrants are tested.”
Some nongovernmental organizations and charities have reserved hotel blocks to quarantine immigrants, and “their assistance allows the federal government to work with local communities to get this done,” Psaki said.
Groups in border communities are keeping the virus contained by letting migrants who test positive quarantine in hotels, confirmed Sister Norma Pimentel of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. Her organization pays for hotels in Brownsville and McAllen for this purpose.
“We want to make sure that they’re safe, and that everybody else is safe, and that they don’t enter the United States beyond this point without first testing them and making sure that they don’t have COVID,” Pimentel said. “Nobody moves from the point when they’re dropped off to, to move anywhere, until we can assure that they’re not positive.”
About 6.3% of immigrants have tested positive for the virus. Cameron County, where Brownsville is, has a 13.8% positivity rate, Romero told NBC News. On Wednesday, 7,593 new cases of the coronavirus were reported in all of Texas.
On Feb. 16, the Biden administration started processing eligible asylum-seekers who had been sent back to Mexico under the Migration Protections Protocols, but people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. were urged not to approach the border unless they were instructed to come to the U.S. The International Organization for Migration is providing coronavirus tests for those migrants at ports of entry.
In other parts of Texas, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is also testing immigrants, according to the San Antonio Express-News.
In a statement Thursday, Abbott argued that border security is “strictly a federal responsibility.”
“The federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have COVID,” the governor said.
‘Rhetoric at its best’
In El Paso, another border city, community leaders say there’s danger in the use of inflammatory language about immigrants, given the city’s recent experience with white nationalist and militia groups.
“Obviously, there will be migrants who have COVID, and it would be ridiculous for anyone to say that migrants are not susceptible to COVID. Of course they are,” said U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso. “But based on the numbers I’ve seen, the percentages of migrants who have COVID are very low. … The governor of Texas knows that this kind of xenophobia, racism and hate fuels hate crime. That’s something we in El Paso know all too well.”
While the Trump administration was warning of migrant “invasions” and pushing to “build the wall,” self-described militia groups began camping along the border to protect the nation from what they considered invaders.
On Aug. 3, 2019, a lone gunman killed 23 people and wounded dozens more at an El Paso Walmart, leading local leaders and organizations to call on politicians to think twice. The alleged shooter said he had driven 10 hours from Allen, in North Texas, to “stop the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego called Abbott’s words “rhetoric at its best.” “My goodness,” Samaniego said, “this is the man who’s telling us to not to wear a mask anymore. You can’t have it both ways and blame the immigrant.”
Marisa Limon Garza, deputy director of the Hope Border Institute, a faith-based nonprofit in El Paso, called Abbott’s comments “patently false.” Her institute has been working with Mexican organizations daily to help coordinate the transfer of migrants into El Paso.
“I find it ironic and even hypocritical that Texans no longer have to wear masks,” Limon said, “yet immigrants are getting painted with the same old racist and xenophobic brush.”
The only migrants coming through El Paso are those in the Migrant Protection Protocols, said Mayor Oscar Leeser, and they are not allowed to cross into the U.S. if they test positive. El Paso is currently taking in only 25 migrants per day, and they are required to stay at a local shelter, usually for no more than 48 hours, before they’re united with their host families, Leeser said.