EXCLUSIVE: Texas sends 10,000 COVID-19 tests to McAllen, where border agents are releasing migrant families

McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — A state senator from the South Texas border region told Border Report on Wednesday that the City of McAllen “sounded the alarm” to state leaders over swelling numbers of migrants being released by DHS officials for the past week, and the city has been sent 10,000 COVID-19 tests from the state to test the migrants who are being paroled under the agency’s newly reimplemented catch-and-release policy.

This is a unique collaboration with the state that is not happening with other cities along the Texas border with Mexico, State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, told Border Report. He said it is “a local policy” by the City of McAllen to try to test all migrants released into McAllen, but Hinojosa said that is not necessarily happening in other South Texas cities where migrants are being released.

On Wednesday morning, Border Report got exclusive access into the Humanitarian Respite Center of the Rio Grande Valley — a resting and recuperating facility run by Catholic Charities of the RGV in conjunction with the city of McAllen — where the migrants are being tested for coronavirus. Nearly 400 released migrants have come through the center since Jan. 28.

Several migrant families told Border Report they were recently released by Border Patrol and were paroled to temporarily live in the interior of the country.

Migrants are seen spaced apart and masked on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021, being helped at the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the RGV in McAllen, Texas. A group of 60 migrants were released to the center by Border Patrol agents at 9 a.m., and they were being tested for COVID-19. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The migrants are being tested at the facility and those who test positive for coronavirus are being sent to nearby hotels to quarantine prior to getting on public transportation, Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa said the test kits were sent after McAllen Mayor Jim Darling last week reached out to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick over the swelling numbers of migrants who suddenly were being dropped at the city’s downtown bus station. Many boarded buses without being tested for the coronavirus, he said.

“(Border Patrol agents) were just dropping them off at the bus station without testing them. Obviously, that’s very alarming to all of us in that they’re coming from Central America and through Mexico and to be released into the United States without being tested for COVID is really unconscionable,” Hinojosa told Border Report on Wednesday afternoon via a phone call from Austin where he is serving on the Texas Legislature.

Migrants released by Border Patrol receive meals, clothes and coronavirus tests free at the Humanitarian Respite Center run by Catholic Charities of the RGV in downtown McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

He said he is not aware that officials in other South Texas border cities, like Brownsville or Laredo, have asked state officials for testing kits for migrants who cross the Rio Grande illegally and are released by Border Patrol officials.

Border Report was the first to report on Tuesday that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials are now releasing migrants who are apprehended after illegally crossing the Rio Grande into South Texas.

The catch-and-release policy had been the law of the land under the Obama administration but was revoked by President Trump. President Joe Biden has reversed that in an executive order signed late Tuesday in Washington, D.C., allowing the policy to be back in effect.

A migrant mother and her child look for breakfast on Feb. 3, 2021, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

It appears that U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials began re-initiating catch-and-release sometime around Jan. 28. So far, only family units — meaning adults with children — are being paroled into the country, according to interviews with South Texas officials.

The first surges of migrants hit the Humanitarian Respite Center on Jan. 28, when 15 migrants were released at 10 a.m., according to the center’s ledger, which was shared with Border Report. That day, a total of 57 migrants came to the center where they were tested for coronavirus, given meals, an opportunity to bathe and new clothes.

On Monday, 80 migrants showed up, including a group of 33 at noon, center records show. On Wednesday morning the biggest single group yet — 60 migrants — came to the center at 9 a.m.

In interviews with some of those families, Border Report learned that most spent two nights detained by CBP officials in McAllen after crossing the Rio Grande from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas into Hidalgo County.

Joe Estrada, 15, of Honduras, crosses a street to the McAllen Bus Station on Feb. 3, 2021, after being released by U.S. officials and paroled into the country with his mother. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Border Report has asked CBP whether catch-and-release has been re-implemented in South Texas, and whether agents are testing migrants for coronavirus prior to their release. The agency on Wednesday said DHS is working with nonprofits to help what it is calling the “out-of-custody process.”

A CBP spokesman wrote in an email: “CBP has seen a steady increase in border encounters since April 2020, which, aggravated by COVID-19 restrictions and social distancing guidelines, has caused some facilities to reach maximum, safe holding capacity. As is always the case, persons taken into custody and processed under Title 8 are evaluated on a case-by-case basis for consideration of a custody redetermination pending an immigration hearing. Whenever feasible we are seeking alternatives to detention in cases where the law allows. CBP takes very seriously the safety and well-being of its workforce and those they encounter, and we are taking even more precautions due to COVID-19. As they always have, the number of individuals crossing the border continues to fluctuate and we continue to adapt accordingly. For those released, CBP may work with non-government organizations who will assist them through the out-of-custody process.”

Luis Alonzo Cerna Marquez, of Honduras, and his son, Luis Fernandez, floated a tire across the Rio Grande illegally into South Texas and were released by Border Patrol officials on Feb. 3, 2021. They were waiting at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, for bus fare to join relatives in Virginia. Alonzo Cerna Marquez of Honduras

Thirty-six-year-old farmer Luis Alonzo Cerna Marquez, of Honduras, said he and his 11-year-old son, Luis Fernandez, floated on a old tire across the river. They were apprehended on Sunday by CBP officials and held for two days and arrived at the Humanitarian Respite Center around 6 p.m. Tuesday night.

On Wednesday morning, the pair sat in plastic chairs holding a large yellow manila envelope containing papers allowing them to travel within the United States. They were waiting for Marquez’ sister to send money for bus fare to Virginia where she lives.

They traveled for 16 days from their home, which Marquez said was destroyed by back-to-back hurricanes that struck Honduras in November and leveled their fields.

“The hurricanes destroyed all that we had, our homes, our farm. We have nothing left,” he said.

When asked if he was surprised to be let go by U.S. border officials he said he was.

“I was surprised but I thank God for everything, for this opportunity to be released,” he said in Spanish.

Fifteen-year-old Joe Estrada, of Honduras, spoke excellent English and translated for his mom as the pair walked from the respite center across the street to the McAllen Bus Station. He said they traveled for 25 days and left their country on Jan. 1.

Walter Ramirez Gonzalez, 22, of Guatemala, said he and his wife and 2-year-old daughter, Crystal Sofia, were held for two days in separate cells by CBP officials in McAllen. They were apprehended Monday night and were among the group of 60 who arrived at the Respite Center at 9 a.m. on Wednesday.

Walter Ramirez Gonzalez, 22, of Guatemala, right, talks Feb. 3, 2021, at the Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, about his family’s detention by CBP officials after illegally crossing into South Texas from Mexico. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

We caught up with him after they enjoyed a breakfast of pan dulce and cereal. They were waiting for an uncle to buy them bus tickets to join him in Maryland, he said.

“It was fine at the detention facility,” he said. “There were many people who also crossed who were there.”

Texas State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa is a Democrat from McAllen. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Sen. Hinojosa said the Biden administration’s change in immigration policies are being rapidly implemented without time for local or state officials to prepare lodging or consideration for border communities that now are being exposed to undocumented migrants who could be carrying coronavirus.

“We checked into it and found out they were just being released to bus station so they could travel to the interior of the United States with documents saying that would get them through the checkpoint,” Hinojosa said. “As the Biden administration starts to change policies word of this will get down to South America and Central America and we’ll see an increase of families coming to try to cross the river.”

As the Biden administration starts to change policies word of this will get down to South America and Central America and we’ll see an increase of families coming to try to cross the river.”

Texas State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa

“These orders are coming in very quickly and not providing time for us to digest it and so we are learning as we go, so to speak, as to what is really happening along the border,” said Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen. “Quite frankly our immigration policies are a mess. We really have to focus and come up with a way to manage the situation because for us we have the right to defend the border. We cannot have an open border policy and not be able to manage control of people who come into our country.”