Local officials can’t force migrants who test positive for COVID-19 to isolate at park tents

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Migrant advocates call for more humane treatment and question whether group setting will just spread deadly virus

MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — Legally released migrants who test positive for the coronavirus and are sent to a pop-up isolation tent shelter park cannot be forced to stay there, local officials tell Border Report as community concerns mount and divisions are being drawn between those who supported the migrants.

Local officials put up the tents Thursday at Anzalduas Park, which is on the banks of the Rio Grande south of the town of Mission, to hold an overflow of migrants families if one member tests positive for the coronavirus. This came after rising numbers of migrant families, who were legally released by the Department of Homeland Security, were testing positive in downtown McAllen and city officials were concerned they would spread the disease in the community.

The tent facility is designed to hold 260 people and is expected to be expanded to hold 650. It is being overseen by the nonprofit Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, the City of McAllen and Hidalgo County. And this is the second location for the tents, which were originally put up last week in a residential neighborhood in north McAllen, but were moved within 24 hours after public outcry.

Video taken on Monday by a volunteer and supplied to Border Report shows large groups of migrants lying on cots and blankets outside on the grass in the 96-acre park. The volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous, said many of the migrants said they wanted to leave and did not like being close together inside the tents.

But if the migrants want to leave this remote park outpost, city officials say they can’t make them stay.

“If they’re not COVID-negative I know they’re trying to discourage that (leaving) but we really don’t have that (ability) — not the city, not the county, law enforcement or Catholic Charities — have any legal authority to hold them,” McAllen spokeswoman Xochitl Mora told Border Report on Monday.

“You can’t keep someone locked up, you can’t force somebody not to leave a locale and so we’re doing the best we can with that,” McAllen City Manager Roel “Roy” Rodriguez said Thursday during a news conference at the park where they announced they had moved the pop-up shelter.

On Monday, migrant advocates with La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) held what they called a “chain of protection to welcome immigrants” in downtown McAllen at the headquarters for Catholic Charities’ Humanitarian Respite Center, which is across the street from a facility where all migrants are first tested for COVID-19 upon release by DHS.

The testing facility is run by a third-party nonprofit hired by Catholic Charities and the City of McAllen, which has so far paid out of $106,000 relating to the testing and housing of migrants. FEMA officials have paid out $1.5 million relating to the operation, Rodriguez said.

Danny Diaz is in charge of organizing events for LUPE in the Rio Grande Valley. He is seen at a protest in downtown McAllen in support of migrants on Aug. 9, 2021. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

“We feel there has been alarmist rhetoric around this issue where it’s really de-humanizing people and it’s really dividing people. We’re calling to action our moral responsibility, not only us but our local elected officials, state officials, our federal officials to inject moral language into this discourse. The discourse we’re having right now is frankly dividing people on this issue,” Danny Diaz, LUPE director of organizing, told Border Report.

“We’re talking about humanity. People’s rights under the law,” Diaz said. “The rhetoric and the narrative that migrants are to blame for COVID-19 when in reality we know there’s a lot of failures of responsibility from the governor all the way from the top down. The last thing we need to do is blame migrants because we have an ugly history of blaming migrants and the poor.”

On Monday afternoon, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro N. Mayorkas announced that he will be in South Texas to meet with local officials and community leaders.

Anzalduas Park is about 8 miles away from the Humanitarian Respite Center and bus station. And local officials say there are “natural barriers,” including the Rio Grande as well as a wide flood levee, to discourage migrants from trying to leave the park.

Officials with the ACLU of Texas told Border Report that forcing to keep migrants altogether at the park was “inhumane” and “illegal.”

Dr. Michelle Cordoba Kissee is an endocrinologist in the Rio Grande Valley. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Dr. Michelle Cordoba Kissee, a local endocrinologist, attended Monday’s protest to show support and “to address the misinformation that immigrants are somehow unilaterally responsible for the spread of COVID.”

“I do want to show that our community rejects that rhetoric. We’re here to support our brothers and sisters,” she said.

Kissee told Border Report that she has volunteered at Catholic Charities and that residents shouldn’t play into exaggerated fears that migrants are the only ones spreading coronavirus.

She also said that, as a physician, she doubts putting together all the migrants who are infected is a healthy solution.

“I am far removed from decision-making. This is just my opinion but I think anytime you have a group of people even regardless of COVID, together like that, you have enormous risk for spreading communicable diseases so anything from lice to varicella, which is chickenpox,” she said. “Whenever you house people together regardless of the location from any public health standpoint it’s just a terrible idea.”

Hidalgo County officials on Monday reported five more deaths and 835 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the total to over 101,000 since the pandemic began.

The McAllen City Commission was taking up the issue on Monday evening during their meeting. This story will be updated if necessary information comes out at the meeting.

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