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Gov. Greg Abbott issues order restricting transportation of migrants who pose COVID-19 risk

The order targets charity services and affects the transport of migrants from a shelter to a quarantine hotel.

AUSTIN, Texas — On Wednesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order restricting ground transportation of migrants who he says pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 into Texas communities.

Abbott’s order directs the Texas Department of Public Safety to stop “any vehicle upon reasonable suspicion of such violation” and reroute them back to their point of origin or point of entry. It gives DPS the authority to impound a vehicle that violates the order.

It invokes the Trump-era Title 42 rule that allows those migrants to be expelled to Mexico. President Joe Biden has kept that policy in place.

By specifically noting “no person other than a federal, state, or local law enforcement official, shall provide ground transportation to a group of migrants who have been detained by CBP for crossing the border illegally or who would have been subject to expulsion under the Title 42 order,” the order targets groups such as Catholic charity services. It would affect the transport of migrants from a shelter to a quarantine hotel.

The order cites the emergence of the highly contagious delta variant and lower vaccination rates in migrant countries.

According to Abbott’s order, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has recently seen a 900% increase in the number of migrant detainees who tested positive for COVID-19 in the Rio Grande Valley.

"The dramatic rise in unlawful border crossings has also led to a dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among unlawful migrants who have made their way into our state, and we must do more to protect Texans from this virus and reduce the burden on our communities," said Gov. Abbott in a statement. "This executive order will reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure in our communities."

However, it’s unclear the effect border crossings have had on COVID-19 cases in Texas. While the U.S.-Mexico border is closed to “non-essential” travel through August, the U.S. continues to allow millions of people to cross the border weekly. KVUE has reached out to the Governor’s Office to confirm the data it used to make the decision for the executive order.

The delta variant is already present in Texas and the U.S., and according to the CDC, it is believed to be the dominant strain nationwide. The latest per capita data of daily new confirmed COVID-19 cases show the U.S. with higher daily case counts than Mexico and South America.

Among migrants allowed to stay in the U.S. for now, ICE statistics show 1,267 COVID-19 positive cases currently in custody nationwide out of 27,670 total detained, including 67 at the Dallas field office, 158 at the El Paso field office, 232 at the Houston field office and 362 at the San Antonio field office. CBP said it has had 9,308 total federal employees test positive for COVID-19 but does not indicate whether those cases were contracted from migrants.

The governor’s order invokes the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, including Section 418.018(c), the “governor may control ingress and egress to and from a disaster area and the movement of persons and the occupancy of premises in the area.”

On Friday, Abbott sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland regarding the executive order.

"The Biden Administration is knowingly admitting hundreds of thousands of unauthorized migrants, many of whom the federal government knows full well have COVID-19," reads the letter. "To be clear, the Biden Administration is knowingly importing COVID-19 into Texas from across the border and knowingly exposing Texans and Americans to that disease. While the Biden Administration is openly pondering looming shutdowns and mandates on U.S. citizens to control the spread of COVID-19, at the same time the Administration is knowingly worsening the problem by importing COVID-19 at extreme rates."

After the announcement on Wednesday, the Mexican American Legislative Caucus (MALC) issued a statement, saying Abbott was "using the pandemic as an excuse to advance his anti-immigration agenda." MALC accused the governor of giving more power to law enforcement to racially profile people of color.

"Blaming the current coronavirus surge on immigrants in his executive order is a flagrant attempt to absolve his ineffective leadership that ultimately led to the unnecessary loss of life of our fellow Texans,” said State Rep. Rafael Anchía, chair of MALC. "Gov. Abbott is unwilling to take even simple steps to keep our kids safe as parents are dealing with gut-wrenching decisions to send their kids back to school next month."  

In April, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Biden administration for what he said was encouraging the spread of COVID-19 at the southern border by allowing asylum-seeking migrants to gather in congregated care settings. That lawsuit asked a federal court to require the administration to expel migrants to Mexico under the Title 42 rule.

Gene Hamilton, a former Trump administration immigration official at the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice, was listed alongside Paxton as a lawyer in the case. Hamilton represents the America First Legal Foundation, a legal group founded by ex-Trump aide Stephen Miller, launched with the backing of former President Donald Trump.

Paxton also sued the Biden administration in an attempt to restore a policy put in place by Trump that forced migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico while their claims are processed. Republicans have pointed to the end of the program as a reason for an influx of migrants at the border.

More than 70,000 migrants who were enrolled in that program were sent back to Mexico. Many were forced to live in sometimes dangerous and unsanitary migrant camps. In February, the Biden administration allowed asylum seekers enrolled in the program to cross into the U.S.

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