Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is stalling efforts by the Biden administration to provide federal funds for Covid-19 tests for migrants released from custody, a senior Homeland Security official tells CNN.
After relaxing state Covid restrictions this week, Abbott alleged, without evidence, that migrants coming into Texas are exposing the state’s residents to the coronavirus.
“The Biden administration has been releasing immigrants in south Texas that have been exposing Texans to Covid,” Abbott, a Republican, said in a CNBC interview Thursday.
But behind the scenes, the Department of Homeland Security has relayed plans to the governor’s office to try and get assistance to cities and counties to mitigate Covid-19 spread, according to the official.
DHS has already set plans in motion to use Federal Emergency Management Agency funds to support community efforts to test, isolate and quarantine migrants released from Border Patrol custody, the official told CNN. But the grant money needs to be approved by the state before it can be distributed to border communities. CNN previously reported plans were underway to use FEMA funds to help localities acquire tests.
“Border security is strictly a federal responsibility. The federal government alone has the responsibility to test, screen and quarantine illegal immigrants crossing our border who may have COVID,” Abbott said in a statement. “Instead of doing their job, the Biden Administration suggested it did not have the sufficient resources and, remarkably, asked Texas to assist them in aiding their illegal immigration program. Texas refused.”
Abbott announced Tuesday he’s lifting the mask mandate in Texas, even as health officials warn not to ease safety restrictions, and said businesses of any type will be allowed to open 100% beginning March 10.
When asked about the federal government’s efforts to test migrants, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “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. And that can take place and that – steps for isolation, quarantining and medical care can be taken should that be needed.”
In a statement to CNN on Friday, a DHS spokesperson said the department has been working with local mayors and public health officials in Texas to provide Covid-19 testing and its agreement with partners called for federal funds to cover expenses related to testing, isolation, and quarantine.
“We hope that Governor Abbott will reconsider his decision to reject DHS’s agreement with the Texan local authorities that would enable the very testing of migrant families that Governor Abbott says he wants,” the spokesperson said.
The Biden administration is still largely relying on a Trump-era policy at the US-Mexico border to turn away the vast majority of migrants encountered by the Border Patrol. But Mexico stopped accepting some families from being returned. That change, combined with social distancing in US detention centers, has created a lack of space for migrants, forcing Customs and Border Protection officials to release families into the US.
The agency said in a statement that personnel check for Covid-19 symptoms and “consult with onsite medical personnel, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), or local health systems as appropriate.”
In McAllen, Texas, city officials requested thousands of Covid-19 tests from state officials in January after learning migrants were not being tested by CBP. Catholic Charities administered the tests. If migrants test positive, the organization will help them quarantine in a local hotel.
The Texas Division of Emergency Management told CNN Thursday it has received and filled requests for Covid-19 testing from local officials in border communities. “Since the end of January, the state has provided 40,000 COVID-19 tests to Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, and Del Rio to meet the testing need not being fulfilled by the federal government,” said Seth W. Christensen, chief of media and communications for the agency, in a statement.
Brownsville Mayor Juan “Trey” Mendez III said Thursday that 108 migrants out of about 1,700 have tested positive in the city, a number he says is not alarming despite criticism from state officials. Mendez said Brownsville was provided with around 10,000 tests from the Texas Division of Emergency Management. Of those, the city has administered around 2,000 tests, he said.
“We are seeing a positivity rate of a little over 6%,” Mendez said, adding that that number is on par with what is being seen around the state.
In January, nearly 7,500 families were encountered by CBP at the US-Mexico border, according to the agency’s most recent monthly data. That number is expected to rise, putting a strain on resources.
To expand capacity, the agency opened a “soft-sided” structure in Donna, Texas, and is constructing another in Eagle Pass, Texas. At least four more “soft-sided” facilities are being considered, though locations haven’t been nailed down, according to a senior DHS official. Additional Border Patrol agents are also being deployed to help with processing.
This story has been updated with comments from Gov. Greg Abbott, White House press secretary Jen Psaki, the Texas Division of Emergency Management and Brownsville Mayor Juan “Trey” Mendez III.
CNN’s Ashley Killough and Jamiel Lynch contributed to this report.