Growing Number in Congress Demanding Answers on Covid-19 at the Border

22 House members send new letter to acting DHS secretary

By Todd Bensman on August 12, 2020

Topic Page: Covid-19 and Immigration

The evidence is now clear and convincing that significant numbers of ill Covid-19 patients in Mexico are legally and illegally crossing the southern border for treatment in U.S. hospitals and contributing to spikes in hospitalizations and deaths in the border states.

But information remains stubbornly missing in action as to the phenomenon's extent, information that is urgently needed to adjust U.S. policy responses. The information also is needed to tell us why Covid-19 can be jumping the border like this when the Trump administration declared the border closed to "non-essential travel" and invoked the tough "Title 42" quick-expulsion policy for all illegally entering Mexicans.

Few in media or government seem eager to brave the charges of xenophobia and racism that inevitably follow when anyone suggests migrants may carry in diseases.

But not everyone is frightened or cowed, not in critical pandemic circumstances when hospital beds all along the border, on both sides, are dangerously overwhelmed and threatening lives.

In mid-July, three members of Congress marshaled by Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) penned a letter to Chad Wolf, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, requesting data that would indicate the extent of Mexico's contribution to U.S. hospitalizations, so that leaders can revise or create life-saving policy to counter the problem. Reps. Roy, Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), and Ted Budd (R-N.C.) also asked how often the Border Patrol transports apprehended illegal immigrants to hospitals. Rep. Roy's office told me DHS had missed both July 17 and July 24 deadlines but seemed to still be earnestly working on the request.

On Monday, August 10, Rep. Roy's quest had drawn a total of 22 congressional signatories on a new letter to Wolf asking for still more information.

But First . . . Loopholes

To understand their latest request, it helps to know that in March, the Trump administration ordered emergency measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 to and from Mexico. It ordered an exemption-riddled "border closure" on March 20 that seems only to actually apply to travelers interested in recreation on either side. Anyone else with a visa, a border-crossing card who claims they are essential, or those with legal residency in the United States can still cross through the ports of entry for medical treatment, for instance. Hundreds of thousands have taken advantage.

Secondly, the Title 42 expulsion policy — where Border Patrol agents immediately turn back almost all illegal Mexican immigrants — seems to have a couple of built-in exemptions through which illegally crossing Covid-19 patients are slipping into U.S. borderland hospitals. One loophole is that Border Patrol agents have the discretion to transport sick or injured illegal immigrants to local hospitals, rather than immediately returning them to Mexico. Another Title 42 exemption seems to prevent Border Patrol from returning to Mexico Central Americans or extra-continental migrants from around the world who get apprehended. Those go to ICE detention facilities, many of them subsequently discovered to be sick with Covid-19.

The Latest Information Request from Members of Congress

Apparently through these exemptions, a kaleidoscope of sick people have been fleeing overrun Mexican hospital systems and into American ones since May, their ranks escalating in June and July in California, Arizona, and then Texas. As I've explained in multiple posts, the majority of the border-crossers seem to be Mexicans who are legal permanent residents in the United States, those with dual citizenship, holders of border-crossing cards and of different sorts of visas, and American expatriate retirees.

But last week, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan acknowledged at a press conference that Border Patrol agents were indeed transporting apprehended illegal aliens to hospitals, too, if they exhibited Covid-19 symptoms or claimed they had Covid-19. His comments confirmed June 18 Center for Immigration Studies reporting from anonymous Border Patrol agents in the field that they were transporting illegal immigrants to hospitals and becoming sick themselves while doing it.

With all of this in mind, the new information request from the 22 members of Congress asks how CBP has defined "essential travel" and under what circumstances aliens with border-crossing cards are ever prevented from entering at the border and also when they are granted passage. The members asked what specific steps CBP is taking to prevent Covid-19-positive aliens from entering. The letter signatories also asked how many aliens with border-crossing cards have been admitted into U.S. health care facilities for Covid-19 treatment.

They provide their reasons for asking:

"Our policies are only as good as their enforcement, and we cannot afford to undermine their effectiveness — especially with lives, resources, and the well-being of our nation on the line," the letter reads, in part. "We must implement and subsequently enforce common-sense measures to limit the spread of this highly contagious virus and are hopeful that your department will focus aggressively on our border states and localities."

Their request and concerns may not fall on deaf ears at the White House.

On Tuesday, August 11, news broke that President Trump was weighing a likely controversial set of new regulations that would sew up key loopholes in his initial border closure. Among the ideas would be to block American expatriates and Mexican legal permanent residents. It's unclear yet when or if these fixes will move forward. But whatever is implemented should come paired with a robust medical airlift of supplies and people who can repair and expand Mexico's collapsed hospitals all along its side of the border. Leaving blocked American citizens without care should not be an option.

To be continued.