- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2021

A quarter of the illegal immigrants dropped off in one Texas town tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the man who runs the homeless shelter where Border Patrol agents are bringing the migrants they’re catching and releasing.

Bill Reagan, director of Loaves and Fishes, the food bank and shelter in Harlingen, Texas, said more cases are likely but are not being detecting because, given the conditions, testing is “almost useless.”

Mr. Reagan told a Harlingen City Commission meeting last week that the migrants are processed at the border and then bused to his facility, so they may have contracted COVID-19 but show no signs of infection. Besides, he said, there is not much the city can do.

“We can’t quarantine them,” he told commissioners. “Even though they test positive, they’re going to leave the next day. They’re going to get on the bus or the airplane, and they’re gone.”

The first group that came through had 25% positivity test rate, he said.

Those migrants are now likely spread out across the country, challenging the Biden administration’s insistence that its border policies aren’t a new vector for the disease.

Harlingen is one of several cities deep in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. All of them are experiencing the new migrant surge. They are grappling with people nabbed by agents and then released into their communities.

East of Harlingen stands Brownsville, where the city is testing migrants who show up at the bus station. Brownsville’s COVID-19 positive test rate since Jan. 25 was 6.3% — 108 migrants — according to an NBC/Telemundo report.

West of Harlingen stands McAllen, which has contracted with the local Catholic Charities branch to handle testing of migrants released into the community.

A city official referred questions about the COVID-19 positivity rate to the nonprofit, which has not provided substantive answers to repeated inquiries from The Washington Times.

Allowing the migrants to enter and be released into communities violates the federal government’s own COVID guidelines for travelers, which include testing and quarantining.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas initially told reporters that migrants being released were “as a matter of process” turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which he said conducted testing.

By the middle of last week, White House press secretary Jen Psaki had a different take. She said federal agencies were releasing migrants without testing but state and local officials and nongovernmental organizations were stepping in to do it.

“In general, our approach and our policy is to work with local governments, work with NGOs to ensure — to have testing — to ensure these migrants are tested,” Ms. Psaki told reporters.

Pressed by a reporter on why the administration was outsourcing the role, she said it was the NGOs that “stepped in.”

Mr. Reagan, in his appearance before the City Commission’s virtual meeting Wednesday, said the shelter he runs is doing the testing, but it doesn’t mean much.

“The testing is really almost useless because these folks have been in detention together, they’ve been in close quarters under difficult circumstances for weeks sometimes, they’ve been brought together on the bus,” he said. “Some folks who test negative may have recently been exposed.”

Besides, he said, most are getting on buses within a day.

He said the migrants are probably not taking any precautions on the journey to the U.S.

“I don’t think they’ve been tested before, and I don’t think the asylum seekers coming to us have a real grasp on what COVID is,” he said. “I think their priority has been getting to the United States.”

He said his operation at the Loaves and Fishes homeless shelter has two tents to handle the migrants after the Border Patrol drops them off. The first tent is a staging area for immediate processing, and the second is for testing.

Those who test positive are taken to a hotel where the shelter has booked rooms. If there is enough hotel capacity, those who test negative are also taken to the hotel. Otherwise, they are kept at the shelter.

Elsewhere, no regular testing is conducted at all.

Local officials in Arizona told The Washington Times that the cities and counties didn’t have the capacity to test the migrants for COVID-19 or house them, and nonprofit organizations were either not equipped or also lacked that capacity.

Homeland Security has not provided numbers for migrants who are caught and released, though officials on the border say it amounts to hundreds a day.

They are in addition to some 25,000 migrants whom the Biden administration has invited into the U.S. after they spent months mired in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program.

The MPP pushed them back across the border to wait in Mexico until their immigration court dates in the U.S., but the Biden team said that program was too “cruel.” Those in MPP are now being admitted as long as they show they have been tested or quarantined on the Mexican side of the border.

The Biden administration has played down coronavirus risks tied to the migrant surge and has declined to call the striking increase in illegal immigrants a “crisis.” Instead, the administration has labeled it a “challenge.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, A Republican, called the surge a crisis and said President Biden’s policies are to blame. He announced Saturday that he was surging state resources to deal with it.

“The crisis at our southern border continues to escalate because of Biden Administration policies that refuse to secure the border and invite illegal immigration,” Mr. Abbott said in a statement.

Operation Lone Star is aimed at the smuggling cartels, which control the routes for getting drugs and people across the border.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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