Lacking federal guidance, local border communities are bearing the brunt of accommodating hundreds of newly released asylum seekers despite the potential public health impacts of COVID-19. In one South Texas community, migrants are not being ordered into quarantine by local officials. Despite efforts by humanitarian organizations to provide shelter in hotels for those migrants who test positive, others are breaking quarantine protocols and leaving the border area to points further inland in Texas.
In a Harlingen City Commission meeting held last week, leaders expressed concern with the COVID-19 testing capabilities and quarantine procedures at the shelters. Wanting to balance humanitarian needs and protect public health, the commissioners discussed the situation of migrants violating quarantine procedures and leaving the community.
During the meeting, posted in its entirety on YouTube, City Commissioner Richard Uribe, referring to the migrant testing process asks, “if they’re positive, what happens?” Assistant City Manager Gabriel Gonzalez responds, “If they test positive, they’ll be quarantined but they can’t force them to stay somewhere in quarantine, they’ll just have to notify, if we know where they’re going that they tested positive.” Commissioner Uribe then asks, “they could just leave, and they would be positive?” Gonzalez replies, “That’s true.”
The financial burden of coping with recent migrant releases was also a topic of discussion during the meeting. Faced with the dire need to assist with humanitarian needs, $50,000 from the city’s general fund was appropriated to a local shelter. An additional $25,000 was authorized to be allocated at the discretion of the city manager. The mayor expressed little hope that the funding would be reimbursed by the federal government.
According to law enforcement sources, other smaller border communities in Texas still lack COVID-19 testing capabilities for the released migrants. Even when rapid testing is available, local leaders there are encountering difficulties monitoring and enforcing quarantine procedures.
In Eagle Pass, Texas, constables visited the local shelter in recent days, urging the migrants to abide by emergency declarations to dampen the spread of COVID-19.
Despite concerns, the federal government has yet to provide local communities with any guidance concerning the safe and orderly release of migrants.
Randy Clark is a 32-year veteran of the United States Border Patrol. Prior to his retirement, he served as the Division Chief for Law Enforcement Operations, directing operations for nine Border Patrol Stations within the Del Rio, Texas Sector.