Hundreds of illegal immigrants were nabbed at the border and then almost immediately released into Texas’ Val Verde County last week — in some cases dropped off along a roadside — with no coronavirus testing or quarantine restrictions, and only a piece of paper with their court date in hand.
In Yuma, Arizona, migrants caught at the border were turned loose at a Jack-in-the-Box restaurant. In Cochise County, on the other side of the state, 100 migrants were dropped off in a Walmart parking lot.
Even as the Biden administration talks tough on mask mandates and coronavirus precautions, the Homeland Security Department is releasing thousands of people into the country across the southwestern border. Many have traveled thousands of miles over weeks, crowded into vehicles and stash houses, with no thought for masks or social distancing.
Once in the U.S., they are boarding buses and trains. If they have the money, they are boarding airplanes along with the general public and spreading out to neighborhoods across the country.
One sheriff said people released into his county are destined for Florida, California, South Carolina, New York and Houston. Another sheriff lists Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia as destinations he has heard.
“It’s a health pandemic, and now they’re being released into our area. They have no money, they have no vouchers,” said Cochise County Sheriff Mark Dannels. “Literally, they’re just dropping them in places where they feel they have the best ability to navigate from these border communities deeper into the United States.
“We’re playing the game of uncertainty in our local communities,” he said.
In addition to the catch-and-release policy, Homeland Security is actively inviting another 25,000 migrants into the U.S. after they spent months mired in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols.
Better known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, the MPP made tens of thousands of migrants who showed up at the border and made claims go back and wait in Mexico until their immigration court dates. The Biden team has called that policy inhumane. On Feb. 19, it began bringing in 25,000 people with active cases.
Homeland Security says those coming under the MPP umbrella have been tested for COVID-19 in Mexico and are required to wear face masks while in-processing.
“In the locations where processing for this MPP population is unfolding and about to begin, DHS has coordinated both nationally and locally with facilitating organizations supporting the triage and pre-screening in Mexico, as well as with public entities and nonprofit organizations on the U.S. side,” Homeland Security said.
Local health and law enforcement officials question the accuracy of Mexico’s testing, wonder whether a second test will be required once the migrants are in the U.S. and doubt anyone will enforce the seven-day quarantine that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention directs for all new arrivals in the U.S.
That’s just the MPP releases.
The other migrants, the catch-and-release newcomers showing up at the border who weren’t part of MPP, aren’t required to show any testing before they are sent into communities, the border sheriffs said.
“They’re not doing a COVID test because they’re only there for a day and a half at the most, for custody and observation,” said Yuma County Sheriff Leon Wilmot. “You don’t have any of the rules that have been passed down through our federal government being followed at all in this case.”
The sheriffs say rapid testing would at least mitigate some of their concerns.
“I think they ought to be tested as they’re apprehended or turning themselves in,” said Sheriff Joe Frank Martinez in Val Verde County, where an average of about 40 migrants a day are turned loose.
There is also a sense among some of the sheriffs that the administration might not want to know the results of testing.
None of the key sending countries — Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and Haiti — has a reported per capita infection rate anywhere near the U.S. rate. Haiti remains stunningly low in reported cases.
But those countries have not reported the kind of improvement in other parts of the U.S. in recent weeks. Cuba in particular is facing an acute surge of COVID-19 cases.
Sheriff Wilmot said it’s something folks far from the border should be worried about.
“These individuals aren’t staying on the border. They’re traveling to the interior of the United States, and there is no response from DHS on how they’re going to adequately monitor any of these individuals to ensure they’ve done a 14-day self-isolation.”
Local officials say they are getting little information from Homeland Security on precautions for the MPP releases.
“DHS will not let anybody in law enforcement or public health know where are these facilities, in what states, how is it being monitored or are you coordinating with local health departments,” Sheriff Wilmot said.
Maj. Gen. Michael T. McGuire, Arizona’s adjutant general and director of its Department of Emergency and Military Affairs, said the Biden administration was in the middle of “an uninformed, uncoordinated rush to implement sweeping immigration policy changes without proper regard for the health and safety of Arizonans.”
“I am deeply concerned such action will exacerbate an already complex public health emergency,” he wrote to Homeland Security. He begged for coordination to begin.
Homeland Security did not address questions from The Washington Times about Gen. McGuire’s request for cooperation.
The chaos on the border contrasts with public pronunciations of the Biden team.
At the White House last week, presidential press secretary Jen Psaki rebuffed the invitation of a reporter to label the situation “a crisis.”
On Friday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken took a “virtual” tour of a border port of entry in El Paso, Texas, and suggested that newly arrived illegal immigrants would be rejected.
“To anyone thinking about undertaking that journey, our message is: Don’t do it. We are strictly enforcing our immigration laws and our border security measures,” he said. “The border is closed to irregular migration.”
It is tough to square that firm declaration with what local officials say they are seeing.
Border Patrol agents are once again reporting large groups of family units: parents traveling with their children, believing that having the youngsters in tow will make it more likely that they are caught and released. Sheriffs say that’s exactly what is happening.
A group of more than 100 people, mostly families and unaccompanied juveniles from Central America and Cuba, was nabbed near Mission, Texas, on Tuesday. A day later, agents in the same area nabbed another group of 130.
Those kinds of mini-caravans were a key symptom of the 2018 and 2019 border surge.
Up the Rio Grande, in Val Verde County, Sheriff Martinez said they are also seeing family units.
He said he expects the numbers to rise as more people in Latin America and the Caribbean get word of the releases and decide to make the trip themselves.
“It’s going to be a vicious cycle of processing and releasing,” he said.
In Yuma, Sheriff Wilmot said migrant apprehensions “are going up each and every day.”
Sheriff A.J. Louderback in Jackson County, Texas, said the Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector, one of nine sectors along the U.S.-Mexico line, is reporting 1,000 people a day attempting to enter without authorization.
Some are shepherded to Catholic Charities in McAllen for COVID-19 testing, the sheriff said.
The city of McAllen is footing the bill for hotel rooms for some of the migrants, he said. Others are quickly shipped out of the region by nonprofit groups.
Brownsville, which said migrants were starting to be released under “catch-and-release” policies in late January, ran out of tests on Jan. 31 and didn’t get more for a week, according to KHOU, a Houston television station.
Some other regions just don’t have the kinds of resources or nonprofits needed to handle the surge.
In Yuma, Mayor Douglas J. Nicholls told government officials that they are at a loss about what to do. About 240 migrants were released into Yuma County from Feb. 15 through Feb. 25.
“We currently do not have a process or system set up to address needs as people are being released,” the mayor said in an email to the region’s state and federal lawmakers. “After speaking with our NGOs and local churches, there is not capacity to adequately address the needs except for an occasional assistance to a family.”
The Washington Times tracks smuggling cases along the border, and the latest data shows $8,000 is now the standard payment for many of the migrants from Mexico and Central America, though some pay quite a bit more.
Sheriff Louderback said that cash is going straight to the cartels that control the smuggling routes into the U.S.
“From my perspective, and many of the sheriffs here, it’s about the large numbers of people that are being brought into the state,” Sheriff Louderback said. “The Biden administration is creating a pandemic of people here.”