McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Calling it a “public health crisis,” the mayor of Laredo told Border Report on Wednesday that his South Texas city is sending busloads of migrants to Austin and Houston without testing them for coronavirus.
Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz said the city is sending four charter buses per day with a total of 200 migrants who have been sent by Border Patrol from the Rio Grande Valley to Laredo. The migrants, mostly all families, have legally been released by federal authorities to travel in the United States.
The migrants are arriving at the Greyhound stations in Austin and Houston and provided with PPE and masks but Saenz said he is uncertain whether non-governmental organizations on the ground in those cities are testing the migrants when they arrive. He said that Laredo officials, however, are notifying emergency management coordinators in Austin and Houston that the buses are en route.
“These migrants aren’t being tested. Border Patrol doesn’t test them. We much less don’t have the infrastructure of testing and quarantining. When you test then if they’re positive then there’s an obligation there, or duty, to quarantine and that’s expensive and the NGOs don’t really have that capacity here locally,” Saenz said.
These migrants aren’t being tested. Border Patrol doesn’t test them.”Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz
The City of Laredo in July filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security to stop the transfer of migrants from the RGV, citing an increase in migrants with coronavirus being sent to the region. The city also issued a disaster declaration to prevent migrants from the RGV from entering the Laredo region. But, nevertheless, the buses still kept coming.
Saenz said this new arrangement is a compromise that the city reached with DHS officials, and it includes the city hiring a charter bus company to transport the migrants to other cities.
Because the city would be obligated to try to isolate and help migrants quarantine, Saenz said they are not testing them for coronavirus, adding that they do not have the hotel space or space in their migrant shelter to do so.
“We entered into an understanding that we would drop the lawsuit, which we did, and then Border Patrol would deliver these migrants, about 200 or so per day, to a city facility that we leased and then we, in turn as a city retained a bussing company to transport these migrants farther north here in Texas,” Saenz said.
Initially, the city was sending the migrants to Dallas, Austin and Houston, but the cost to the city was too high, Saenz said, “so we decided to just focus on Austin and Houston.”
The buses cost Laredo $8,000 to $10,000 per day, Saenz said, and the city is hoping to get reimbursed by FEMA.
Laredo firefighters are facilitating the transfer of the migrants in a warehouse area that Saenz describes as a “little bus terminal” where snacks, porta potties and toiletries are provided to the migrants as they get off DHS buses and onto the Laredo charter buses bound for Austin and Houston.
He said providing the buses is a necessity because Laredo has a “waiting list” for hospital beds and the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise. He said there were about 800 active cases on Wednesday and that included a 3-month-old migrant girl who was brought by Border Patrol to Laredo from the RGV.
“We don’t even have a pediatric ICU,” Saenz said. “The federal government can take them someplace else. They have a choice. But we, as residents, really don’t have a choice. We’re literally fighting for beds here if there are beds available. So it’s truly a public health crisis.”
He said that when the city filed the lawsuit on July 16 that 35 to 40% of all migrants that were being brought to Laredo from the RGV by DHS officials were testing positive for coronavirus. Now, they do not know what the percentage is because the city is no longer testing the migrants.
But the infected migrants, at the time, quickly filled up the Holdings Institute, the city’s only migrant shelter and forced it to quarantine and close down to new arrivals. He said there also are no hotels in Laredo that will accept COVID-positive migrants. And he said Laredo does not have the ability to open up a large park, which was done recently in the RGV, to isolate and test migrants.
But what really pushed the city to this point, he said, is the waiting list for hospital beds and a lack of nurses and doctors to tend the sick.
“We’re actually pitting a migrant versus a resident wanting a bed and when you have two ill people it’s extremely uncomfortable to be in that situation. It’s insensitive and cruel to put us in that situation because no one wants to decide who gets a bed first,” Saenz said.
Saenz said he was invited and plans to attend Thursday’s roundtable meeting in McAllen with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, who is coming to the South Texas border amid calls from local leaders for the Biden administration to address the situation.
He said he hopes to bring up the dire situation to Mayorkas.
“It’s unmanageable. It’s uncontrolled. It’s chaos,” he said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.