As House GOP Demand Answers About Migrant COVID Testing, McAllen, Texas Conducts Some On Its Own

The transition from the Trump administration's hardline approach on immigration to President Joe Biden's more welcoming stance has led to a host of policy reversals, but their implementation has led to a pandemic-related scramble in Texas, and given House Republicans the opening to ratchet up their language, deeming it a "humanitarian crisis" at the border.

At issue is the Biden executive order revoking a memo by his predecessor that ended "catch and release" at the southern border. That led Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials to tell the city of McAllen, Texas that family units — or undocumented immigrants with children crossing into South Texas seeking asylum — were being released into the U.S. to await their court hearings.

House Republicans on the Committee on Oversight and Reform released a letter addressed to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas on Friday blasting the changes, saying that unaccompanied children and family units are arriving in high numbers.

They warned "the Biden Administration's actions could soon lead to a health crisis at the border and surrounding communities, causing widespread COVID-19 infections and fatalities," and claimed that coronavirus testing is not being done for these migrant arrivals.

However, that is not the case.

CBP is releasing migrants at the downtown bus station in McAllen, and city officials then bring the families across the street where Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley Humanitarian Respite Center administer free COVID-19 tests, 6,000 of which were procured by the City of McAllen when CBP let them know of the impending release of migrants.

Additionally, asylum seekers who are awaiting their turn to present their cases and were forced to remain in Mexico due to the last administration's policies, are seeing a more stringent coronavirus testing process because of the involvement of non-governmental international organizations and active coordination with the U.S. and Mexico governments.

"The process with receiving the immigrants has been established since 2014 working with Catholic Charities," Xochitl Mora, communications director for the city of McAllen told Newsweek. "This time the difference is the pandemic and how to handle that."

A Catholic Charities representative was not immediately available for an interview on testing protocol but Mora said the group assists the migrants with the rest of their journeys.

But as a return to Obama-era policies commences, questions have been raised about the COVID-19 testing procedure. It is unclear why CBP is not doing the testing themselves, and the agency directed a Newsweek request to a separate email but did not respond to detailed questions by publication time. The city of McAllen representative said it was their understanding that CBP tests migrants when in the custody of border patrol but that they aren't currently doing so for this new group of arrivals.

The letter by House Republicans also cited a recent change in Mexican law which makes it more difficult to use Title 42 expulsion authority related to public health. The lawmakers said Biden's policies, coupled with his rhetoric, were making the U.S. a magnet for immigrants.

The Biden administration has sought to balance what it says is rebuilding a functional asylum system from scratch, with the understanding that a fair, legal, and humane approach to asylum could be construed as a "come on in" message from the United States and possibly lead to a border crisis as the weather warms. A letter from DHS announcing changes to the asylum system last week, for example, included that "this announcement should not be interpreted as an opening for people to migrate irregularly to the United States."

migrants into US
BROWNSVILLE, TEXAS - FEBRUARY 08: Asylum seekers from Honduras wait at a bus station after they were released from U.S. immigration authorities on February 08, 2021 in Brownsville, Texas. Since the inauguration of President Joe Biden, increased numbers of asylum seekers, most from Central America, have begun crossing the Rio Grande into Texas, and immigration authorities have been releasing them to stay in the U.S. pending court hearings. John Moor/Getty