In Texas, a Quarantine Camp for Migrants With Covid-19

In Texas, a Quarantine Camp for Migrants With Covid-19

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MISSION, Texas — On the edge of the Rio Grande in South Texas, sprawling Anzalduas Park has long been a popular spot for bird-watching, family cookouts and fishing. But earlier this month, the grassland expanse with barbecue grills and picnic tables was put off-limits, transformed into a large Covid-19 quarantine camp for migrants who have crossed from Mexico.

Buses now pull in to deposit passengers under a large circular pavilion, where bedraggled families form a line, waiting to be tested for the coronavirus. Those who test positive must remain at the camp, often with their families, until they are virus-free.

By this week, at least 1,000 migrants were housed at the teeming camp, erected by the nearby city of McAllen as an emergency measure to contain the spread of the virus beyond the southwestern border. About 1,000 others are quarantined elsewhere in the Rio Grande Valley, some of them in hotel rooms paid for by a private charity.

Cities in South Texas, the busiest crossing points along the border, are now at a harrowing place where two international crises intersect: an escalating surge of migrants and the rise of the Delta variant of the virus, forcing city leaders and nongovernment organizations to step up testing and quarantine operations as the Border Patrol continues to refrain from testing newly arrived migrants.

Amid a ferocious 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 halt the influx of migrants for the soaring case numbers.

In fact, the massive operation in McAllen and others like it make that extremely unlikely, and public health officials and elected leaders here note that the region was facing rising case numbers even before the recent increase in border crossings.

“We can’t attribute the rise in Covid numbers to migrants,” Mayor Javier Villalobos of McAllen said in an interview. He said city and county officials issued a disaster declaration on Aug. 2 and moved to set up a quarantine center after it became apparent that the surge in border crossings posed a health risk to local residents.

“The influx of migrants just became too big,” 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 on a recent weekend. It could be mistaken for a sprawling recreational campsite. Residents were picking up food under a white event-style tent, children climbed on a jungle gym and families lounged in the shade. Some people appeared lethargic and unwell.

Of the 96,808 migrants who have passed through McAllen this year and been checked for the coronavirus, 8,559 had tested positive as of Tuesday.

Yet the prevalence of the virus among migrants thus far has been no greater than among the U.S. population overall, according to medical experts, and the highest positivity rates in the country are not in communities along the border. Rather, they are in areas with low vaccination rates and no mask mandates.

The positivity rate among migrants serviced by Catholic Charities in McAllen reached 14.8 percent in early August, after hovering between 5 and 8 percent from late March to early July, but it has not surpassed the rate among local residents.

In Hidalgo County, the migrant positivity rate was about 16 percent last week compared with 17.59 percent for residents, who have had little, if any, interaction with the migrants.

“Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Dr. Iván Meléndez, the health authority in Hidalgo County, said last week during a news conference.

On Thursday, the Homeland Security secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, was scheduled to visit Brownsville, on the border 60 miles southeast of McAllen, where migrants who test negative are being offered vaccines at the bus station.

Since March 2020, the federal government has been using an emergency health law known as Title 42 to expel thousands of migrants who might otherwise have been allowed into the United States. The Biden administration extended the policy, but has had to admit many families arriving in the Rio Grande Valley, especially those with young children, because Mexico says it has nowhere to shelter them.

Smuggling networks have exploited the loophole, and overall migrant apprehensions in July reached 212,672, the highest monthly figure in 21 years, despite the searing heat. The number of intercepted people in family units jumped 49 percent, to 82,966, from 55,839 in June.

Even without Covid-19 challenges, the surge has strained local shelters, where families typically stay long enough to bathe, rest and book travel to destinations across the country.

Sister Norma Pimentel, the executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, which runs a shelter in downtown McAllen that has room for 1,200 migrants, said she had to sound an alarm last week because the Border Patrol was dropping off so many people at the shelter’s door.

“I told the mayor, ‘I need help,’” she said. “We have never seen these numbers before.”

“The problem wasn’t that a higher percentage of families were Covid-positive,” Sister Pimentel said. “It was that the numbers arriving were so high, there were more positives among them.”

The McAllen City Council voted within an hour to accommodate migrants in tents on city land, prompting an outcry among some residents. The tent shelter soon relocated to Anzalduas Park, well outside the city.

Everardo Villarreal, a county commissioner, called the park “a perfect location because it has natural barriers to keep immigrants from county residents.”

“We have enough people of our own infecting each other; we don’t need people from other countries coming and infecting us,” he said.

The Border Patrol said it does not have the capacity to test migrants for the coronavirus upon arrival; doing so would require them to remain even longer in crowded border processing stations when the priority is to release them as quickly as possible, officials said.

Catholic Charities since last year had been testing migrant families for the virus immediately upon their release by Border Patrol and isolating those who test positive at its downtown shelter. In February, amid an uptick in arrivals, it began sending those families to motels.

The issue exploded in late July after a resident in the nearby town of La Joya waved down a police officer to report a family of migrants who appeared to be exhibiting Covid-like symptoms while dining at a Whataburger.

The fast food restaurant is a three-minute walk from a Texas Inn, where the infected family had been staying, according to Sgt. Ismael Garza, a local police officer. It soon emerged that the motel was one of several in the Valley that were housing under quarantine many other migrants also stricken with the virus.

“We posted it on Facebook, and next thing you know…,” Sergeant Garza said, his voice trailing off.

The post, headlined “Covid-19 Alert,” said officers had been previously unaware that migrants who had tested positive were at the hotel and noted that 20 to 30 of them had been observed “out and about, the majority without face masks.”

Soon, Fox News was on the scene.

In response, Gov. Greg Abbott on July 28 issued an executive order barring private citizens and organizations from transporting migrants who “pose a risk of carrying Covid-19 into Texas communities,” an order apparently directed at the private charities that were operating shelters and contracting with local hotels for quarantine locations. 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 unlawful” and the Justice Department sued, winning a temporary injunction blocking the order, at least through Friday.

On a recent afternoon, the door to every room of the sand-colored two-story motel in La Joya was closed. The pool area was empty. A man who sat in a blue Volkswagen Beetle, directly facing the compound, said that his job was to ensure that no migrants left their rooms. Food was being left at their doors three times a day, he said.

The motel’s owner, Sam Patel, said that about 15 rooms were occupied by migrants who had the virus, half the original number.

A nurse was visiting twice a week, he said. “Everything’s safe.”

The locations of motels quarantining migrants have not been publicized, and Vilma Ayala, 60, said that she spent the night at one of them, only to realize that many fellow guests were Covid-positive migrants.

“Never did they tell us they were using this hotel for Covid people,” said Ms. Ayala, who had not been vaccinated. She said that she grew suspicious when she saw food being delivered to several rooms. She demanded, and received, a refund.

A couple of miles away from the motel in La Joya, as the sun went down, new groups of arriving migrants began emerging from the brush along the border. By 10 p.m., dozens were sitting in a baseball field off Military Road, waiting to be transported to a Border Patrol facility.

Jeremy, a 3-year-old Honduran boy, his eyes sunken and his body limp, was draped over his mother’s lap. “He has a fever,” said the mother, Rosi Mabel. “We’re all coughing and sneezing.”

Once they were processed, the families who were not immediately expelled were delivered to the Anzalduas Park tent camp for coronavirus testing.

After having their noses swabbed, migrants were directed to sit in gray folding chairs under the shade of a tree until their results were ready. Those who tested positive were sent to an area behind a railing, where they waited for further instructions.

Those who tested negative were told they would be transported to the Catholic Charities shelter.

A volunteer announced what was, on that day at least, good news. “We just had 110 negatives,” she said.

Linda Qiu contributed research.


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