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U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, recently said on Fox News that, over a six-month span, the Biden administration has released more than 7,000 COVID-19 positive migrants in a single Texas border community.
Cruz joined Fox News hosts during an Aug. 4 episode of America Reports, where he was asked to respond to data released by the White House showing that Texas and Florida — two states where Republicans have rejected public health measures like mask mandates — accounted for one-third of all new COVID-19 cases nationwide during the last week of July.
President Joe Biden suggested "that the lack of mask mandates is going to help the spread, saying that (Republican governors) need to lead or get out of the way," Fox News co-host John Roberts told Cruz. "With the cases spiking, senator, does he have a point?"
Instead, Cruz focused on migrants who tested positive for the coronavirus.
"In the last several months, the Biden administration has released over 7,000 illegal aliens who were COVID positive just in one Texas city — in the city of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley," Cruz said. "Last week, the Biden administration released over 1,500 illegal aliens in McAllen who were COVID positive."
"Joe Biden likes to talk about this pandemic. Well I’ll tell you what, the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris was a superspreader event because their open border is endangering not just the people of Texas, but people all across the country," Cruz said.
But is it true that the Biden administration has released more than 7,000 COVID-19 positive migrants in McAllen in the past several months? And are these infected migrants released in McAllen and elsewhere driving the surge of COVID-19 cases in Texas and the U.S., as Cruz suggested?
The 7,000 figure stems from a news bulletin released by the city of McAllen the same day as Cruz’s Fox News appearance. The bulletin announced local officials’ plans to erect a temporary emergency shelter in response to a "rapidly escalating surge of immigrants at the Texas-Mexico border."
Housing and processing of migrants released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in McAllen has been managed by the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, a non-profit. Under Catholic Charities’ protocols, migrants are tested for COVID-19 after they are released by Customs and Border Protection.
Migrants who test negative for the virus are admitted to the non-profit's Humanitarian Respite Center, where they can connect with relatives or sponsors living in the U.S. The temporary tent shelters erected by local county and city officials are designed to increase the Respite Center’s capacity to help keep immigrants "off the streets," the city said.
Migrants who test positive for the virus are taken "to quarantine sites in the Rio Grande Valley area" for 10 days, the city said. "Once an immigrant has completed quarantine, they proceed on their final northbound travel out of McAllen."
However, any migrant quarantining under Catholic Charities can choose to leave if a relative picks them up. Executive Director of Catholic Charities Sister Norma Pimentel recently told the Los Angeles Times that the non-profit has "no right to keep them if they want to leave. We encourage them to stay."
Between mid-February and early August, Catholic Charities has processed 87,000 immigrants released by Customs and Border Protection. More than 7,000 of them tested positive for COVID-19, McAllen officials said — a positivity rate of about 8%. By comparison, the city of Brownsville, which also tests migrants after they are dropped off by Customs and Border Protection, reported a positivity rate of about 9.3% between January and August. And Texas’ statewide positivity rate over the course of the pandemic is around 12%, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
But these positivity rates over long time periods don’t reflect the present surge of cases fueled by the delta variant, which became the cause of more than 80% of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. beginning in July, according to federal estimates.
Neither the city of McAllen nor Catholic Charities responded to requests for data showing recent positivity rates. However, Dr. Ivan Melendez, the health authority in Hidalgo County, where McAllen is located, estimates that the current positivity rate of migrants released by Customs and Border Protection is around 15%. And only about 3% of the county’s hospital bed capacity is taken up by migrants.
By comparison, Texas’ has recorded a statewide positivity rate of about 18% over the last month, which has strained hospital capacity statewide.
"If the migrants were not here, we certainly would still have a pandemic. Our numbers would almost be exactly the same," Melendez said. "That being said, you can't bring in (thousands of) positive cases into a community and not expect for it to have some impact."
When asked during his Fox News interview if laws banning mask mandates could be blamed for COVID-19 surges in Texas and Florida, Cruz responded by shifting blame on COVID-19 positive migrants released by Customs and Border Protection, using the 7,000 McAllen cases as an example.
Blaming the present surge on immigrants and the Biden administration’s immigration policies has become a popular talking point for many Republicans, although there’s little evidence to back that up.
On the same day of Cruz’s Fox News interview, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed that Biden "imported more virus from around the world by having a wide open southern border." PolitiFact rated that claim False, finding that case data provides poor support for the notion that the virus is being spread primarily by migrants.
Gov. Greg Abbott used similar language during a Fox News interview in July, when he accused the Biden administration of "importing COVID into Texas as well as the United States."
But the distribution of COVID-19 cases throughout the U.S. doesn’t correspond to migration patterns. Even if migrants eventually disperse to other locations once released by Customs and Border Protection, they would have an impact on coronavirus rates locally first, experts told PolitiFact last month. But national case distribution data doesn’t show that.
In Texas, state data shows that the seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases is around 22,700 as of Aug. 31, or about 78 cases per 100,000 people. By comparison, Hidalgo County's seven-day average of new daily cases is less than half that. The same is generally true for the rest of the Texas border region. Of the 32 counties that comprise the Texas Department of State Health Services Border Area, only eight have a seven-day average of new daily COVID-19 cases above the state’s average, according to John Hopkins data.
Rather, COVID-19 distribution data provides more evidence to pin the present surge on areas with low vaccination rates. A New York Times analysis in July, for instance, found COVID-19 case rates in counties with vaccination rates below 30% were double that of counties with vaccination rates above 60%.
And data published by the Mayo Clinic shows that states with vaccination rates below 40% have recorded some of the largest increases in coronavirus hospitalizations in recent months. None of those states are along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Are (the migrants) the cause of the pandemic? No. Are they part of the pandemic? Yes," Melendez said. "Are they having a higher positivity rate than the rest of the community here? No."
When asked about Cruz’s characterization of migrants’ role in the present surge, spokesperson Steve Guest focused on the number released by the city of McAllen.
"This is yet another bogus so-called fact check designed to obfuscate the crisis on the border that has resulted from Biden’s disastrous political decisions," Guest said. "Sen. Cruz is correct about Biden’s super spreader event: over 7,000 COVID-positive illegal aliens have been released since February in McAllen."
In responding to a question about the correlation between states with policies prohibiting mask mandates and recent coronavirus surges, Cruz said that migrants who tested positive for the coronavirus should instead be blamed for an increase in cases, and he used numbers recently released by McAllen city officials as an example.
"In the last several months, the Biden administration has released over 7,000 illegal aliens who were COVID positive just in one Texas city — in the city of McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley," Cruz said.
The Catholic Charities non-profit in McAllen has recorded over 7,000 positive cases among migrants released by Customs and Border Protection since February. That’s a positivity rate of about 8%. However, most migrants who test positive are released to non-profits that place them in quarantine before they move throughout the U.S.
Cruz’s overall point — that migrants are fueling the current COVID surge — is not supported by data. The 8% positivity rate of migrants released in McAllen is less than the state’s average. And data shows that the distribution of COVID cases throughout the U.S. corresponds more to low vaccination rates than migration patterns.
We rate this claim False.
Mediaite.com, ‘Chutzpah’: Ted Cruz Rips Biden for Telling GOP Governors to Help or ‘Get Out of the Way’ on Covid, Aug. 4, 2021
Facebook post from the Presidential Coalition group, Aug. 25, 2021
Tiktok post from @forsuchatimeclothing, Aug. 5, 2021
City of McAllen news release, Aug. 4, 2021
John Hopkins University & Medicine, Coronavirus Resource Center, accessed Sept. 2, 2021
Yale Medicine, 5 Things To Know About the Delta Variant, Aug. 26, 2021
Interview, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, Sept. 1, 2021.
Email, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz spokesperson Steve Guest, Sept. 1, 2021
PolitiFact, Ron DeSantis’ effort to blame COVID-19 spread on migrants is short on evidence, Aug. 6, 2021
Wall Street Journal, Why Illegal U.S. Border Crossings Likely Aren’t Fueling the Covid-19 Surge, Aug. 21, 2021
Los Angeles Times, Migrants? Unvaccinated people? Who’s fueling a COVID-19 surge on the border? Sept. 1, 2021
Texas Department of State Health Services, Map of DSHS Border Area
New York Times, As Covid Cases Rise All Over U.S., Lower Vaccination Rates Point to Worse Outcomes, July 31, 2021
Mayo Clinic, U.S. COVID-19 vaccine tracker: See your state’s progress, accessed Sept. 2, 2021
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