Border jumpers carry dramatically higher COVID-19 rates than U.S. population

Migrant families coming across the border are testing positive for the coronavirus at between three and 10 times the rate of the U.S. population, according to a Washington Times survey of jurisdictions that are doing the testing.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told The Times that the families it is processing are between 5% and 10% positive.

In Brownsville, Texas, the city says it is seeing a 12% positive rate.

And in Harlingen, near Brownsville, the homeless shelter where families are being dropped off reported a group at 25% positive for COVID-19. That’s more than seven times the current positivity test rate for the U.S. public, which Johns Hopkins University’s tracker shows at 3.5%.

Pastor Bill Reagan, who runs Loaves and Fishes, the Harlingen shelter, said they’re doing the best they can with the situation.

“It would be best if Customs and Border Protection decides to release certain individuals into the United States that they thoroughly quarantine them for the 14 days and test them and only release those that rest negative,” he said. “But I also understand they’re overwhelmed.”

Some of the families are being quarantined. A senior ICE official told The Times that those in its custody who test positive are able to be held in isolation, though he said they do try to get nonprofits to help take some of them.

ICE is only able to take about 100 of those family members a day. Those on the ground in Texas say there are between 500 and 800 people coming across daily, and they are being farmed out to local shelters that don’t have the power to compel someone to stick around if they don’t want to.

In Harlingen, migrants were dropped at Loaves and Fishes, the city’s homeless shelter.

Mr. Reagan told The Washington Times they saw two groups, both last month. The first on Feb. 18 was 49 people, and it had a COVID positivity rate of 25%. The second group arrived on Feb. 19 and Mr. Reagan said they came so late that they weren’t tested.

He said even when the newly arrived migrants are tested, that doesn’t catch everyone.

“I think this is probably true for all the places people have been released from Border Patrol custody. All of them have been in close quarters for a long period of time. They all come together on the bus, they’ve all been detained together, and I would suppose on their trip from Central America they have been mixing with all kinds of people,” he said.

“Say they come to us on a particular day — they may just have been exposed that day or a day earlier and not test positive because of that,” he said.

At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday that the federal government has offered Texas a system to test and isolate, but she said Gov. Greg Abbott refused to allow it.

“Their proposal and agreement would cover 100 percent of the expense, testing, isolation and quarantine. But Governor Abbott has decided to reject that,” she said.

A reporter pressed Ms. Psaki on why the federal government would block a traveler from entering at an airport without a COVID-19 test or quarantine procedures, but does not apply that same rule to migrants who break the law to jump the border.

“Well, again, I can just describe to you what our policies are,” the spokeswoman replied.

The White House has changed its version of events over the weeks. Originally Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the process was for ICE to test everyone.

Ms. Psaki last week said their policy was actually for “COVID-19 testing to be done at the state and local level and with the help of NGOs and local governments.”

But thousands of migrants have still been released without any testing, said Sheriff A.J. Louderback in Jackson County, Texas. He said Ms. Psaki was misleading the public.

“The lying is starting to bother me,” he said. “This whole piece of criminal and irresponsible government needs to be stopped, one way or the other. Either with public pressure or legal means.”

There are five broad categories of border jumpers at this point.

The first is migrants who can be expelled under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s coronavirus pandemic health order, which the Trump administration issued and the Biden team has kept in place.

The second is migrants who had been mired in Mexico under the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy, officially known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, which the Biden team did cancel.

Some 25,000 people who were part of MPP are now in the process of being admitted. The U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) is overseeing COVID testing of those folks in Mexico, and migrants are only supposed to show up for admittance once they’re in the clear.

A third group consists of the unaccompanied minors, who are supposed to be quickly transferred from Customs and Border Protection to the federal Health and Human Services Department. Dona Abbott, senior advisor at Bethany Christian Services, which helps resettle the children, said during a virtual event hosted by the National Immigration Forum that the children are entering at a rate of about 435 a day.

The children have overwhelmed CBP, leaving thousands stuck in border processing facilities longer than the legal limit of three days.

A fourth group of migrants is those who jump the border, aren’t expelled, and are processed by ICE. They are mostly families, and they are being tested and, if positive for COVID, quarantined. A senior ICE official told The Times they are able to process 80 to 100 a day.

A fifth group — again mostly families — is being caught and released at the border without testing by the government.

Some of those, particularly in Texas, are being tested by local governments and nonprofits such as Mr. Reagan’s shelter.

But not all.

In Cochise County, Arizona, migrants are being dropped at a Texaco, a Walmart and a Safeway. In Yuma County, it was a Jack in the Box restaurant.

Both U.S. officials and nonprofit group leaders said families are being released because Mexico has limited its cooperation in recent weeks. Mexican authorities will no longer accept back families with children ages 6 and under.

“Those families, we’re getting between approximately 500 and 800 every single day,” Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, said during the National Immigration Forum’s virtual event.

Sister Pimentel’s organization is doing the testing for McAllen, one of the major population centers in deep southern Texas.

She and her team have not responded to repeated inquiries from The Times over the last two weeks about her operations and the COVID positivity rate for the migrants she is receiving.

In Brownsville, another major city, Communications Director Felipe Romero said they’ve tested 1,700 migrants as of Tuesday, and 204 tested positive. That works out to a 12% rate.

The most recent week of March 4 through March 9, however, was lower, with a 9.25% positive rate.