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How does the COVID-19 quarantine work for migrants in the Rio Grande Valley?

"If there are families here in our communities, we have a big responsibility to make sure that every person is treated correctly with dignity and respect."

MISSION, Texas — The stories have been the same for some time, at least since Sister Norma Pimentel started listening to them in the summer of 2014.

“The story they tell me and continue to say, ‘My child, my kid, my baby,' you know, it is why they're here. 'I need to protect my child. I want to make sure that my child is safe. I'm afraid for my child's life,’” Pimentel described.

She runs Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as the Respite Center that houses migrants in downtown McAllen. That’s where, for years, federal law enforcement like Border Patrol and ICE have been dropping off migrants released from custody.

But that has changed, at least for the time being in early August, when the Respite Center reached capacity and the COVID-positive families needed a place to quarantine.

With the help of Hidalgo County and the City of McAllen, Catholic Charities are now taking care of COVID-positive migrants in temporary facilities set up in Anzalduas Park, a public facility in Mission, Texas, on the banks of the Rio Grande, a bit removed from nearest homes and businesses.

“What has been established here is pretty much a drop site for Border Patrol and ICE to bring anyone that they're releasing into the community and therefore they get tested here,” Pimentel told KENS5.

Pimentel said a contractor is testing people as they are coming in. Those who test positive stay in the park, while families and coronavirus-negative asylum-seekers go to the Respite Center in McAllen.

Pimentel said COVID-positive migrants get tested every three days until they’re cleared and can leave.

According to the City of McAllen, the most recent weekly COVID positivity rate for migrants was at 16%.

The Hidalgo County Health Authority has told KENS 5 the migrants were not the cause of the high COVID-19 numbers in the community, calling it the pandemic of the unvaccinated.

At Anzalduas Park, migrant families can take a shower, get food and receive medical attention.

“They have tents to sleep and then just open areas where they can just go, kids could play the playground,” she said.

Pimentel said the number of people who’ve been staying here the last two weeks has fluctuated between 800 and 1,500. The space can hold up to 2,000. Not everyone is COVID-positive, however; once a person is diagnosed, families can choose to stay together at the park.

“The numbers are not as high as they were two weeks ago,” she told KENS 5. “A lot of it has to do with the Border Patrol doing lateral flights to other parts of the of the country and also those expedited removals that are sending people back to their country, or to the interior of Mexico. So, all of that is reducing the number of people that are actually dropped off here.”

While the City of McAllen and Hidalgo County leadership have provided infrastructure to make the park facilities possible, leaders have been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the border, including leaving the locals deal with what they call a federal issue.

“This is a federal responsibility,” Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez told KENS 5, “and they're not taking care of that responsibility to our detriment.”

“It's obvious that America needs workers,” Cortez added. “Why don't we decide who we want, give them an easy way to get here so we can stop this this illegal immigration coming.”

A number of congressional initiatives being discussed this month promise to address various border-related issues. But while lawmakers are deciding how to vote or what to do, Sister Norma Pimentel and others in border communities are doing what they can to help the people coming in.

“We cannot disregard the reasons why they're coming,” Pimentel said. “And unless we address those reasons and really at work at finding solutions, we will continue to see what we're seeing today. In the meantime, if there are families here in our communities, we have a big responsibility to make sure that every person is treated correctly with dignity and respect.”