AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — As he ended Texas’ coronavirus restrictions Wednesday over the objections of public health officials, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has tried shifting concern about the virus’ spread to migrants with COVID-19 crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, though without evidence they are a significant factor.
The focus by Abbott and other Republicans on migrant families has drawn criticism about invoking a long history in the U.S. of wrongly suggesting migrants spread diseases.
Twin pressures are bearing down on the Texas border as, beginning Wednesday, state residents no longer are required to wear face coverings after eight months under a mask mandate. Infection levels remain higher in the region than in most others, and rising numbers of immigrants are now overwhelming federal detention facilities.
Arriving migrants who test positive are being directed to local hotels for isolation, as Abbott and Democratic President Joe Biden fight over who is responsible for helping them.
Doctors on the border fear Abbott repealed coronavirus safeguards too soon and threatens a fragile decline in COVID-19 cases. The surge of immigration to the border is also worrying, they say, but far from the biggest factor in containing the virus’ spread.
“It’s not trivial,” said Dr. James Castillo, the public health authority for Cameron County in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, the busiest corridor for migrant apprehensions along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Is it the biggest source of infection to our whole community?” he said, referring to migrants arriving with the virus. “No, it’s maybe one source, and there’s a lot of different sources. And it’s a shame that we’re going to create new sources by dropping the restrictions.”
Abbott, under pressure from conservatives to end COVID restrictions, announced last week that Texas would fully reopen, allowing full capacity in restaurants and bars and large gatherings that had been considered dangerous. Biden criticized the decision as “Neanderthal thinking,” and Abbott shot back by alleging Biden was “releasing COVID-positive illegal immigrants in our state” by easing some of former President Donald Trump’s toughest border policies.
Abbott has rejected offers from the Biden administration for help with testing and quarantining migrants, saying that job belongs entirely to the federal government.
“The federal government has the responsibility to fund the testing of anybody coming here who does have COVID,” Abbott said during a trip to the border Tuesday.
The Department of Homeland Security said it would fully fund testing, isolation, and quarantine of migrants, but that Abbott needed to sign off.