The following editorial published in the Houston Chronicle on Aug. 8:
To hear Gov. Greg Abbott tell it, if Texas has a problem with COVID at all, it’s because migrants are running loose, spreading the virus among unsuspecting Texans who are otherwise dutifully heeding the governor’s familiar refrain of “personal responsibility.”
For a governor looking to shift blame away from himself and his vaccine-hesitant supporters in this latest COVID-19 wave, a tenuous situation in the Rio Grande Valley has provided plenty of fodder.
The ongoing swell of asylum-seekers and other border-crossers, lured to our southern border in part by the perception of more a humane president, has indeed been aggravated by the pandemic. In McAllen last week, officials reported more than 1,500 migrants testing positive for COVID-19 the previous seven days.
The migrants, legally here while the U.S. considers their asylum claims, aren’t just “released” into the general public, as some have claimed. They’re asked to quarantine, many at local hotels, before they can be transported to their next destination. But local officials say the Biden administration has failed to provide enough facilities for quarantine so they’ve had to improvise by setting up emergency tents, including one at a Hidalgo County park. The mounting numbers of migrants in quarantine has, understandably, drawn concerns from residents. Local officials say they’ve had to issue disaster declarations to get help from the state and federal governments to care for the group of mostly families.
The escalating scene has proven an irresistible campaign backdrop for Abbott and a couple of other Republicans hoping to challenge President Joe Biden if he runs again in 2024. For Abbott, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, scapegoating faceless groups of new immigrants has become almost rote, an unquestioned custom of pinning many of the nation’s vexing ills on a constituency who can’t retaliate at the ballot box. Add an infectious disease to the mix and it’s pure partisan gold.
It’s pretty good TV, too. If you’ve watched Fox News lately, or merely talked with someone who has, you know that McAllen’s misfortune has been Christmas in July — and now August, too — for the conservative network. Host Sean Hannity flat out said that Americans who get sick or die of COVID can blame Biden for letting in immigrants who are causing a “super-spreader event.” Cruz was quick to echo him, as he often does, saying the election of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris “was a super-spreader event because their open border is endangering not just the people of Texas but people all across the country.” DeSantis parroted accordingly at a press conference.
Abbott, meanwhile, did more than talk. Accusing Biden of “endangering the lives” of Americans and immigrants, the governor issued an order that made the situation even worse by restricting the transport of migrants. The local Catholic Charities shelter, which houses many of the migrants as they come through McAllen, began to overflow, leading to the need for an emergency shelter. The Justice Department sued, and a federal judge has since blocked Abbott’s order.
With the rhetoric turned up full-blast — Disaster! Crisis! Surge! — what are we supposed to believe?
Peeling back the layers, a far more nuanced picture emerges once you talk with local officials, both Democrats and Republicans. While the delta variant is present among migrants coming across the border, it mirrors the soaring case totals here in Texas where around half the state still remains unvaccinated. The biggest COVID threat in Texas isn’t coming across the border, it’s already here.
Ivan Melendez, the health authority for Hidalgo County, offered a sober assessment that political leaders would be wise to echo.
“Are the migrating folks part of the problem? Absolutely. Are they the problem? No. Are they bringing the disease in? Yes. Are they bringing diseases in that we don’t already have? No. Is their positivity rate greater than our positivity rate is? No,” Melendez said at a press conference. “Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated.”
Yes, McAllen officials say that 7,000 migrants have tested positive for COVID since February, but bear in mind, those folks were promptly quarantined until they tested negative. Even if a few managed to expose someone during that time, that is certainly less cause for alarm or blame than the estimated 116 million vaccine-eligible Americans who have refused to get their shots.
For years, the Respite Center in McAllen run by Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has been a way station in a transit route for legal immigrants traveling to their next destinations, usually near friends and family. Before that point, asylum seekers have to pass a “credible fear interview” that allows them to legally reside in the country under humanitarian release for six months while they wait for their cases to be adjudicated in immigration court.
Catholic Charities receives these migrants from the Border Patrol in downtown McAllen, provides them with necessities and transports them out of town, usually by bus or airplane, to a location approved by federal immigration authorities, typically within 24 hours.
Migrants are not tested for the virus by authorities, and Abbott refused help from the federal government for testing in March, leaving that responsibility to non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, which have gone about it diligently. They say they test migrants as many as three times at the border before they are released for transport.
Over the past 10 days, though, the positivity rate among migrants in McAllen doubled to nearly 16 percent, a byproduct of the delta variant ravaging the globe. Suddenly, Catholic Charities’ center was at full capacity. Local governments were overwhelmed, leading to cities such as Laredo suing the Biden administration over the influx.
Abbott pounced. On July 28, the governor ordered state troopers to begin pulling over any non-governmental group transporting migrants, leading to what some immigration advocates called “a bottleneck on top of a bottleneck.”
That left hundreds of migrants stranded with nowhere to go. The governor drew the ire of the Justice Department and frustrated locals.
“(The executive order) had us in a bind, because we try to get (migrants) in and out as fast as possible,” said Republican McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos.
In blocking Abbott’s order, U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone found it caused “irreparable injury to the U.S. and immigrants in its custody.”
Just as we have called on Abbott to get out of the way of schools and local governments trying to protect Texans with mask requirements, the governor should get out of the way of the federal government trying to enforce immigration laws.
If Abbott were truly concerned about the COVID threat posed by migrants, he would’ve accepted the Biden administration’s offer to help test them. And he wouldn’t kneecap border communities from ensuring that the pipeline of migrants coming across the border legally remains safe and efficient. He’d be joining the bipartisan and seemingly smart push from U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Laredo Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, for the White House to appoint a “border czar” tasked with prioritizing the health and safety of communities in the Rio Grande Valley. He would call, rightly, for the Biden administration to set up its own COVID wards at the border to relieve overburdened NGOs and cities.
There is a long, sordid history in our country of painting migrants, or foreigners in general, as a disease-ridden scourge — from the exclusion acts targeting Asians that were justified around stopping the spread of diseases, to President Donald Trump, who used the pandemic to pressure the CDC to close the border entirely to migrants entering from Mexico.
It’s far easier, and politically convenient, for Abbott and other Republicans to continue this legacy than to take ownership of their own failure to end this pandemic.