The city of Laredo this week began busing migrant families to Austin, Dallas and Houston bypassing the nonprofits that were providing testing, quarantine, vaccines and humanitarian aid amid a resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Far from the border, Texas cities this week scrambled to contend with migrant families left at bus stations, many of whom arrive hungry and disoriented after their journeys through Mexico.

“At first, it was rumors,” said Edna Yang, co-executive director of the Austin-based immigrant advocacy nonprofit American Gateways.

“By Tuesday morning,” she said, “we discovered there had been a bus Monday with 52 migrants, including children. Many families had moved on, but there were some families that appeared to be confused. They hadn’t eaten in a very long time. They didn’t have water. They didn’t have protective gear.”

Austin officials confirmed that 150 migrants were bused to the city’s bus terminal.

The Dallas Morning News reported at least three buses carrying mostly Central American families have arrived in the past week from Laredo, plus a fourth bus from Del Rio filled with migrant families from Haiti and Cuba.

The U.S. Border Patrol processes the migrant families and releases those who may qualify for immigration relief in the U.S.

Laredo officials, contending with a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations, claimed in a July court filing that the city’s nonprofit shelters are “facing significant strain” and local hospitals couldn’t risk taking on sick migrants.

The city sued the federal government last month, asking a federal judge for an emergency temporary restraining order to block the Border Patrol from transferring the migrants into Laredo, after city officials were told that Border Patrol would increase transfers there from about 150 a day to up to 350 a day.

Border Patrol frequently moves migrants to different points along the border for processing when one area becomes busier than another — currently, from the Rio Grande Valley and Del Rio to Laredo and El Paso.

“Our weakened medical infrastructure is not sufficiently equipped to immediately accommodate the health of our own citizens and most certainly cannot handle the additional stress of dozens of (migrant) admissions to our local hospitals,” according to the city’s complaint.

The lawsuit was dismissed Aug. 9, but Laredo and the Border Patrol came to an agreement that the agency would release the migrants to the city, which in turn decided to put them on buses to points north and east.

“If these migrants do test positive, or if any one of them needs care at the hospital, we can’t, we don’t have capacity at the hospital,” said Noraida Negron, a Laredo city spokeswoman. “Our NGOs were literally busting at the seams.”

Two local nonprofits — the Holding Institute and Catholic Charities — were providing shelter, humanitarian aid and medical attention. Holding Institute was testing every migrant for COVID-19 and quarantining those who tested positive, while Catholic Charities sheltered those who tested negative.

Rebecca Solloa, co-executive director of Catholic Charities in Laredo, called the move “irresponsible and morally wrong.”

“It’s really a disservice all the way around,” she said. “I understand the concerns with COVID. But we also must do the right thing and when you start sending people out untested and jeopardizing other cities — when the service is here — we need to think about what we really believe in. It becomes a moral issue, for me. We continue to hope there will be a change of mind.”

Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz, a Democrat, met with Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas Thursday, during the secretary’s visit to McAllen, Negron said.

The city’s busing operation is costing local taxpayers about $8,000 a day, Negron said, and the city is seeking reimbursement for the expense from FEMA.

After sending hundreds of migrants north to Austin and Dallas, Negron said the city is currently busing migrants only to Houston, where they can more easily make connections to their destinations.

Yang, the American Gateways co-executive director, said her team provided aid to the families they found Tuesday at the bus station in Austin and is in talks with the city to ensure the migrants receive aid.

“We got them food, water and protective gear,” she said. “We explained their immigration documentation to them, how to report with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and an overview of their rights in the immigration process.”

“We are getting information as to when there are individuals coming up from the border and assistance from the city to see what we can do to better serve the immigrants bused here,” she said. “We want to make sure their basic needs are met.”

Border Patrol’s Rio Grande Valley sector in South Texas apprehended or encountered more than 59,000 migrants in June and more than 30,000 migrants in Del Rio sector, compared with about 10,000 in Laredo.

Although the Biden administration has continued to quickly expel most migrants to Mexico under the Title 42 public health law, Mexico stopped accepting expelled families in Tamaulipas state — which increased the pressure on Border Patrol in South Texas.

“In order to process individuals as safely and expeditiously as possible, unprocessed individuals may be transported via air or ground transportation to other Sectors along the Southwest border,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an emailed statement.

“The operational need for these sector-to-sector transfers is assessed daily based on the processing capability and facility capacity of each sector,” according to the statement.

The Delta variant appears to be taking a toll on migrant routes, as it has across the U.S. and the region. More migrants began testing positive in recent weeks, according to Holding Institute’s program director Joe Barron.

The Laredo busing operation means the migrant families “are being sent to a location where they don’t know where they are going, there is no one to help them make travel arrangements, when they don’t know if they are sick or not.”

“At the end of the day,” he said, “they are very resilient and they will figure it out. But COVID is the issue. How can the city of Laredo be sending people who more than likely are positive to other cities to help spread COVID?”

In El Paso, nonprofit shelter organization Annunciation House was preparing to receive nearly 200 migrants transferred by Border Patrol from South Texas on Thursday, according to the shelter’s executive director, Ruben Garcia.

“We are aware that the city of Laredo made the decision to charter buses and, on their own, transport refugees to bus stations in cities in the northern part of Texas,” he said.

“Our experience in El Paso is that when they come to us they are arriving with the clothing on their back,” he said.

“They will not have been tested and they have some really basic needs,” he said, for example, “after being tested, being able to sleep, possibly getting a pair of shoes, eating, etc., Pampers and wipes for their children, ‘Nido’ formula, basic human needs. To have them go from the immigration buses to get on another bus and send them to bus stations in northern cities — that should not be done.”

Lauren Villagran

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