MISSION, Texas – On the banks of the Rio Grande in South Texas, the sprawling Anzalduas Park has long been a popular spot for birding, family dining, and fishing. But earlier this month, the expanse of grassland with barbecues and picnic tables was banned, turned into a large Covid-19 quarantine camp for migrants who have crossed through Mexico.
Buses now stop to drop passengers off under a large circular pavilion, where scruffy families line up, waiting to be tested for the coronavirus. People who test positive should stay at camp, often with their families, until they are free from the virus.
This week, at least 1,000 migrants were housed in the teeming camp, erected by the nearby town of McAllen as an emergency measure to contain the spread of the virus beyond the southwest border. About 1,000 more are quarantined elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley, some of them in hotel rooms paid for by a private charity.
South Texas cities, the busiest crossing points along the border, now find themselves in a heartbreaking place where two international crises intersect: a growing wave of migrants and the rise of the Delta variant of the virus, forcing city leaders and non-governmental organizations to step up testing and quarantine operations as the border patrol continues to refrain from testing newly arrived migrants.
Amid a fierce resurgence of coronavirus infections in many parts of the country, some conservative politicians, including the governors of Texas and Florida, have blamed the Biden administration’s failure to stop the influx of migrants for the growing number of cases.
In fact, the massive operation at McAllen and others like it makes this extremely unlikely, and public health officials and elected leaders here note that the region was facing an increase in the number of cases even before the outbreak. recent increase in border crossings.
“We cannot attribute the increase in the number of Covid to migrants,” McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos said in an interview. He said city and county officials issued a disaster declaration on August 2 and decided to set up a quarantine center after it became clear that the increase in the number of border posts posed a risk. for the health of local residents.
“The influx of migrants has become too great,” he said. “The vast majority of McAllen residents never see a migrant, but we couldn’t risk them wandering around town.
A New York Times reporter was granted exclusive access to the quarantine camp a recent weekend. It could be mistaken for a sprawling recreational campsite. Residents collected food under an event-style white tent, kids climbed a jungle gym, and families lounged in the shade. Some people seemed lethargic and sick.
Of the 96,808 migrants who passed through McAllen this year and were screened for the coronavirus, 8,559 had tested positive on Tuesday.
Yet the prevalence of the virus among migrants has so far not been higher than in the general U.S. population, medical experts say, and the country’s highest positivity rates are not found in communities along the border. On the contrary, they are found in areas with low vaccination rates and no mask required.
The positivity rate among migrants served by Catholic Charities in McAllen reached 14.8% in early August, after hovering between 5 and 8% from late March to early July, but it did not exceed the rate among local residents .
In Hidalgo County, the positivity rate for migrants was around 16% last week, compared to 17.59% for residents, who had little to no interaction with migrants.
“Is this a migrant pandemic? No, it’s an unvaccinated pandemic, ”Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr Iván Meléndez told a press conference last week.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was due to travel to Brownsville, on the border 60 miles southeast of McAllen, where migrants who test negative are offered vaccines at the bus station on Thursday.
As of March 2020, the federal government has used an emergency health law known as Title 42 to deport thousands of migrants who might otherwise have been allowed to enter the United States. The Biden administration extended the policy, but had to admit many families arriving in the Rio Grande Valley, especially those with young children, as Mexico says it has nowhere to shelter them.
Smuggling networks exploited the loophole and the total number of migrant apprehensions in July reached 212,672, the highest monthly figure in 21 years, despite the scorching heat. The number of people intercepted in family units jumped 49% to 82,966, from 55,839 in June.
Even without the challenges of Covid-19, the wave has strained local shelters, where families typically stay long enough to bathe, rest and book trips to destinations across the country.
Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs a shelter in downtown McAllen that can accommodate 1,200 migrants, said she had to sound the alarm last week because border patrol dropped so many people at the door of the shelter.
“I said to the mayor, ‘I need help,’” she said. “We’ve never seen these numbers before.”
“The problem was not that a higher percentage of families were positive for Covid,” Sister Pimentel said. “It was because the numbers of arrivals were so high, there were more positives among them.”
McAllen city council voted within an hour to accommodate migrants in tents on city grounds, causing an uproar among some residents. The tent shelter quickly moved to Anzalduas Park, well outside the city.
Everardo Villarreal, a county commissioner, called the park “the perfect location because it features natural barriers to prevent immigrants from county residents.”
“We have enough people infecting each other; we don’t need people from other countries to come and infect us, ”he said.
The border patrol said it did not have the capacity to test migrants for coronavirus upon arrival; that would force them to stay even longer in overcrowded border processing posts when the priority is to release them as quickly as possible, officials said.
Since last year, Catholic charities have been testing migrant families for the virus immediately after their release by the border patrol and isolating those who tested positive at its downtown shelter. In February, amid an increase in arrivals, he began sending these families to motels.
The problem exploded in late July after a resident of the nearby town of La Joya motioned for a police officer to report a family of migrants who appeared to be exhibiting Covid-like symptoms as they dined at a Whataburger.
The fast food restaurant is a three-minute walk from a Texas Inn, where the infected family had stayed, according to Sgt. Ismael Garza, a local policeman. It soon became apparent that the motel was one of many in the valley that housed many other migrants who also had the virus in quarantine.
“We posted it on Facebook, and the next thing you know …” said Sergeant Garza, his voice fading.
The post, titled “Covid-19 Alert,” said officers were previously unaware that migrants who tested positive were at the hotel and noted that 20 to 30 of them had been observed “outside, la majority without face masks ”.
Soon Fox News was on the scene.
In response, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order on July 28 prohibiting individuals and organizations from transporting migrants who “pose a risk of carrying Covid-19 to communities in Texas,” an executive order apparently directed against private charities. who operated shelters and contracted with local hotels for quarantine places. He said the Biden administration’s border policies “were having a predictable and potentially catastrophic effect on public health in Texas.”
Attorney General Merrick Garland called the governor’s order “dangerous and illegal” and the Justice Department continued, winning a temporary injunction blocking the order, at least until Friday.
On a recent afternoon, the door to every room in the two-story sand-colored motel at La Joya was closed. The pool was empty. A man sitting in a blue Volkswagen Beetle, directly facing the compound, said his job was to make sure no migrants left their room. Food was left at their doors three times a day, he said.
Motel owner Sam Patel said about 15 rooms were occupied by migrants infected with the virus, half the original number.
A nurse visited him twice a week, he said. “Everything is safe.”
The locations of the motels quarantining the migrants were not made public, and Vilma Ayala, 60, said she spent the night in one, only to realize that many other guests were migrants positive for Covid.
“They never told us they were using this hotel for Covid people,” said Ms Ayala, who had not been vaccinated. She said she became suspicious when she saw food being delivered to several rooms. She asked for and got a refund.
A few miles from the La Joya Motel, as the sun was setting, new groups of arriving migrants began to emerge from the brush along the border. At 10 p.m., dozens of people were sitting on a baseball diamond near Military Road, waiting to be transported to a border patrol facility.
Jeremy, a 3-year-old Honduran boy with sunken eyes and a limp body, was draped over his mother’s lap. “He has a fever,” said mother Rosi Mabel. “We all cough and sneeze. “
Once treated, families who were not immediately evicted were delivered to Anzalduas Park tent camp for coronavirus testing.
After having their noses swabbed, the migrants were asked to sit on gray folding chairs in the shade of a tree until their results were ready. Those who tested positive were sent to an area behind a railing, where they awaited further instructions.
Those who tested negative were told they would be taken to the Catholic Charities shelter.
A volunteer announced what was good news that day at least. “We just had 110 negatives,” she said.
Linda qiu contributed research.