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McAllen mayor concerned about running a temporary shelter for COVID-positive migrants

The prolonged pandemic means some asylum-seekers have to stay in south Texas to quarantine, presenting new issues for local leaders.

MCALLEN, Texas — Hidalgo County in the Rio Grande Valley is often just a stop in a migrant family's journey.

Typically, they go north to meet family or friends. But in the time of COVID-19, they’re forced to stay and quarantine; meaning, simply, they have to have somewhere to go.

The City of McAllen has set up a temporary shelter for COVID-19-positive migrants in Anzalduas Park. The park itself is in the City of Mission. The location is a bit removed from residents and businesses.

“We're doing something that we're not equipped to do, that we're not supposed to do and that we shouldn't be doing,” McAllen Mayor Javier Villalobos told KENS 5 on Friday. “Very frustrated. As an elected official, we're in charge of water, sewer drainage, police protection, fire protection—not immigration.”

The U.S. Border Patrol is set up to release migrants who are allowed to stay in the U.S. to Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. The nonprofit runs Humanitarian Respite Center in downtown McAllen. 

Before migrants are allowed inside the shelter, they are tested for COVID-19, according to Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the facility. Migrants who are negative go to Humanitarian Respite Center or another nonprofit currently helping with the number of people coming through. The people who are sick chose to stay with families and are now being bused to the tent facilities at Anzalduas Park. The park has been closed for recreational activities.

The initial capacity for the quarantine area was 250 people, according to Hidalgo County officials. At a news conference held on Thursday, city and county leaders told reporters they were already expanding capacity to be able to hold 650 individuals. 

A day later, Villalobos told KENS 5 he estimated 500 to 600 people were living at the temporary site.

“We know it's going to grow,” Villalobos said. “And that's a concern we have. If they keep on coming at the rate that they're coming, I, we don't know what we're going to do.”

The mayor added that the city was prepared to do whatever was necessary to keep its residents safe, saying Anzalduas Park had room to expand temporary facilities.

“It's not a border issue,” the mayor said, “it's a national issue. Start working and start doing something instead of just fighting. I wish that our president would do something to stop it. I think he has the ability to, and I hope he acts.”

President Joe Biden has not visited the Rio Grande Valley, neither has Vice President Kamala Harris, though administration recently unveiled its immigration blueprint.

Officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just renewed Title 42, a controversial public health order that allows border patrol to expel migrants because of the pandemic.

According to the latest publicly available Border Patrol numbers, the majority of migrants who entered the country were expelled under Title 42.