McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The Department of Homeland Security will stop sending migrants apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo due to a dangerously high spike in COVID-19 cases among transferred migrants that the border city’s mayor told Border Report they can’t handle.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz and U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat whose hometown is Laredo, both said on Monday that DHS officials won’t send any more migrants to Laredo from the Rio Grande Valley, where an influx of migrant families, mostly from Central American countries are entering the United States.
“DHS has agreed to suspend lateral transfers of immigrants from the Valley to avoid overburdening (non-governmental organizations) and local medical facilities in Laredo,” Cuellar said in a statement.
“We truly can’t handle any more,” Saenz told Border Report on Monday evening. “We’re asking don’t send any more buses to Laredo.”
Laredo is a poor community of 225,000 that is designated as medically underserved and that currently is dealing with rising rates of COVID-19 from coming from its sister city of Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, which is experiencing its own increase in cases.
Saenz said Border Patrol officials have agreed to temporarily halt the transfers. However, as the Laredo City Council was taking up the issue during a five-hour-long special meeting on Monday, DHS sent at least four more buses of migrants to Laredo, Saenz told Border Report after the meeting.
“Verbally, they said they would not be sending any more, but I was just informed that four buses just arrived and that’s a lot of people for a system that is already in trouble. I don’t know how those people will be absorbed,” Saenz said.
“We can’t do any more without endangering our community and endangering the migrants themselves, so we’re asking Border Patrol to take them someplace else that is better equipped for the caring of these migrants,” Saenz said via phone.
We can’t do any more without endangering our community and endangering the migrants themselves, so we’re asking Border Patrol to take them some place else.”Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz
Saenz described it as “a crisis” during the special council meeting.
The emergency session only addressed one other issue: a continuing boil water order that struck the border town with a one-two punch this weekend.
City leaders have quarantined the city’s largest migrant shelter, the nonprofit Holdings Institute, where nearly 300 migrants have tested positive for coronavirus, Laredo Health Director Richard Chamberlain said. But Saenz says that shelter is now at capacity and they have nowhere else to send infected migrants.
Saenz and other city leaders have spoken to the Texas health director, as well as Emergency Management Chief Nim Kidd, who has offered gloves and masks to be sent to Laredo, Laredo Health Authority Dr. Victor Treviño told the city council.
Chamberlain told the council that so far this month, 296 migrants at the Holdings Institute have tested positive for COVID-19, and that most of the migrants who tested positive in Laredo migrated from Honduras.
Families that test negative for the coronavirus were being sent to shelters operated by Catholic Charities, health officials told the council. But those shelters are nearly also full.
Laredo Fire Chief Guillermo Heard said that the spike happened after U.S. Border Patrol this month began sending an overflow of migrants from the Rio Grande Valley –McAllen, Mission and Roma — to Laredo, where they are being released to NGOs.
Community leaders say they fear that because all migrants are being transported together on large DHS-run buses, that many families could be infected and not registering to have the disease when they first arrive. And that is putting the community at risk, they said.
“The key here is for the government to quit sending migrants until at a time when our NGOs are in a position to handle them,” Saenz told the council. “We have a big issue. We’re at capacity. They’re quarantined and we’re limited with what we can do.”
Border Report has reached out to U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials and this story will be updated if information is received.
On Friday, Saenz sent Cuellar and state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat who represents Laredo, a note that COVID-19 infections are up at local detention facilities run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and NGOs that help migrants. Infected cases now make up 10 to 40% of the population in these places.
“This is a significant jump which necessitates additional resources in caring for and providing isolation (quarantine) for them,” Saenz wrote.
“Yes, it’s been a very rough few days and weeks,” Pastor Mike Smith, who runs Holdings Institute, told the city council on Monday.
Smith said his nonprofit facility only takes in migrant families and they have a 24-hour medical and security team and that no one is allowed to leave the facility without permission. And he said everyone who enters is tested for the coronavirus.
In addition, he said everyone is offered the coronavirus vaccine.
“We are the first shelter along the Texas/Mexico border to offer vaccines,” Smith said.
Treviño told the council the problem is folks who aren’t vaccinated, as well as a surge of cases from Laredo’s sister city, Nuevo Laredo, south of the Rio Grande.
“We need to mitigate and slow down the mass release of COVID-positive migrants in our community and we need to start giving exit vaccines and start vaccinating our neighboring communities like Nuevo Laredo,” Treviño said.
The City of Laredo on June 21 passed a resolution urging the Biden administration to reopen land ports to be able to give shots to Mexican nationals to help thwart the rise of coronavirus cases.
On Wednesday, the DHS chief medical officer will travel to Laredo “to talk with NGOs, hospitals, and local city and county officials to assess the situation,” said Cuellar, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee.
“DHS will work with my office to provide the local community with additional resources. I want to thank DHS for their quick response to my request,” Cuellar said.