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Fact-check: Is the Biden administration releasing 'hundreds' of infected migrants into Texas?

Brandon Mulder
Austin American-Statesman
Gov. Greg Abbott visits the border city of Mission on Tuesday to highlight what he described as a humanitarian crisis of the Biden administration's making.

Greg Abbott: “The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities.” 

PolitiFact's ruling: Mostly False

Here's why: One day after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he would lift the statewide mask mandate and allow all businesses to open to 100% capacity, the governor turned his attention to the coronavirus spreading along the Texas-Mexico border. 

“The Biden Administration is recklessly releasing hundreds of illegal immigrants who have COVID into Texas communities,” the governor said in a tweet. “The Biden Admin. must IMMEDIATELY end this callous act that exposes Texans & Americans to COVID.” 

According to a March 2 NBC News article, 108 asylum seekers in Brownsville had tested positive for COVID-19 by rapid testing while waiting to board busses destined for other U.S. cities. The city of Brownsville conducts these tests on migrants after they are released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As of March 2, the 108 positive cases represented about 6% of all tests the city had administered since Jan. 25, when local officials began testing migrants dropped off by the Border Patrol. While the city can refer these migrants testing positive to non-governmental organizations for quarantining, it does not have the authority to stop people from traveling throughout the country. 

The NBC News article was picked up by Fox News and the New York Post the next day and prompted Abbott to tweet about his concern over COVID-positive migrants endangering Texas communities. 

Abbott continued this line of attack in the subsequent days, first during a TV interview with KPRC-TV in Houston, then in an interview with CNBC, and again in another tweet in which he said the state denied the federal government’s request for help in screening, testing and quarantining migrants. Testing migrants is the federal government’s responsibility, Abbott said. And in a Tuesday news conference at the border, Abbott urged the Biden administration to increase U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement funding, which is responsible for testing and detaining anyone crossing the border.

A negative coronavirus test is required by the federal government before entry to the U.S. While U.S. Customs and Border Protection conducts screenings, “suspected COVID-19 cases are referred to local health systems for appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment,” the agency said in a statement.  

Felipe Romero, a spokesperson for the city of Brownsville, confirmed that the city was rapid testing each person Border Patrol dropped off at the city’s bus terminal. The 108 positive cases reported by NBC News on March 2 had climbed to 204 Tuesday, or about 12% of the total number of people tested.  

Romero said that there are two categories of migrants who are being released to the city’s bus terminal: asylum seekers entering after the repeal of the Trump administration’s Remain in Mexico policy, and those who have been apprehended at the border and allowed to remain in the country pending immigration court hearings, a policy derogatorily described by critics as “catch and release.” 

Let’s look closely at each category to determine the accuracy of Abbott’s tweet.  

Biden policies allowing migrants to remain in the U.S.

In February, the Biden administration announced that it was dismantling many of the immigration policies put in place by former President Donald Trump. The first phase of reform began by processing the 25,000 asylum seekers who had been forced to remain in Mexico under Trump’s Migrant Protection Protocols. 

On Feb. 19, federal authorities began processing up to 300 people per day at three different border crossings — two in Texas, in Brownsville and El Paso, and one in California, according to the Associated Press.  

Because Abbott’s statement focuses on the release of “hundreds of illegal immigrants” in Texas, this fact-check focuses on the crossings in Brownsville and El Paso. While the city of Brownsville reported 108 positive cases among migrants released by Border Patrol, the city of El Paso said that zero positive cases have been identified through its rapid testing program. El Paso’s tests are being supplied by the city and administered by non-governmental organizations, a city spokesperson said. 

The second major policy shift releasing migrants in Texas communities is the reintroduction of the Obama-era policy that allows asylum seekers to remain in the U.S. while awaiting court dates. That policy was suspended by the Trump administration in 2018. The revived policy allows some families who are apprehended by Border Patrol to be released in the U.S. as they await their asylum proceedings. However, not all apprehended migrants are awarded this privilege; many are expelled to their origin countries.  

While asylum seekers formerly held under the remain in Mexico policy are processed in specific communities, those who are released under the revived Obama-era policy could be released anywhere along the border. However, the number of tests administered to people released under this policy is unknown and, according to Border Report, there are concerns that not all are being tested before they travel elsewhere in the U.S. to await court dates.  

It’s unclear what actual numbers form the basis of Abbott’s claim that “hundreds of illegal immigrants” carrying COVID-19 are being released in Texas. A spokesperson referred us to the 108 migrants in Brownsville reported by NBC News and did not respond to questions asking how Abbott arrived at his estimation of “hundreds.”  

‘Illegal immigrants’ vs asylum seekers 

Abbott’s statement mischaracterizes the status of migrants who are being released into U.S. communities by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. 

“Illegal immigrants” are migrants who have entered the country without legal permission. All of the migrants being released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, on the other hand, have applied for asylum and have a legal claim to remain in the U.S. while they await their asylum proceedings.

Using the two terms interchangeably is inaccurate, said Andrea Meza, director of family detention services for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, or RAICES. 

“These folks are asylum seekers, so criminalizing them based on their manner of entry, which is not related to their legal ability to seek asylum, is misleading,” Meza said. 

Our ruling 

Abbott said that the Biden administration is releasing “hundreds of illegal immigrants” infected with COVID-19 into Texas communities.  

A spokesperson said that the claim was based on news articles reporting that 108 migrants released by Border Patrol had tested positive in Brownsville. While that number has risen beyond 200 positive cases since then, it was well below “hundreds” at the time of Abbott’s tweet.  

Abbott also mischaracterizes the status of the migrants being released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection by calling them “illegal immigrants.” They are asylum seekers holding notices to appear in court.

We rate this claim Mostly False.  

Sources

Tweet, @GregAbbott, March 3, 2021 

Tweet, @GregAbbott, March 4, 2021 

Click2Houston.com, Gov. Abbott responds to questions about reopening Texas, ending mask mandate, March 3, 2021 

NBC News, After Border Patrol release, asylum-seekers test positive for Covid in Brownsville, Texas, March 2, 2021 

New York Post, 108 illegal immigrants in Texas who tested positive for COVID reportedly released, March 3, 2021 

Fox News, 108 illegal immigrants released by Border Patrol in Texas test positive for coronavirus, officials say, March 3, 2021 

KRGV-TV, WATCH LIVE: Gov. Greg Abbott holds press conference in Mission to discuss border security, March 9, 2021 

Emails with Renae Eze, spokesperson for Gov. Greg Abbott, March 4, 9, 2021 

Emails with City of Brownsville spokesperson Felipe Romero, March 8-9, 2021 

Emails with U.S. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Stephanie Malin, March 8-9, 2021 

Emails with City of El Paso spokesperson Laura Cruz-Acosta, March 8, 2021 

Interview with Andrea Meza, director of family detention services for Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), March 9, 2021 

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, DHS Announces Process to Address Individuals in Mexico with Active MPP Cases, Feb. 11, 2021 

Associated Press, Biden to slowly allow 25,000 people seeking asylum into US, Feb 12, 2021 

Texas Tribune, Gov. Greg Abbott rejects aid from Biden administration in dispute over coronavirus testing for migrants, March 5, 2021 

Border Report, ‘Catch and release’ resumes in South Texas, mayor says; Biden order reinstates policy, Feb 2, 2021 

International Rescue Committee, Migrants, asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants: What’s the difference? Dec. 11, 2018