Migrants sent to Houston shelter after COVID-19 case closes overflow center at South Texas church

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Released migrants are overwhelming Rio Grande Valley NGOs in South Texas

Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Feb. 23, 2021, in Mission, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

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MISSION, Texas (Border Report) — A Houston shelter has opened its doors to hundreds of migrants who are free of the coronavirus after an overflow facility at a Catholic church in Mission, Texas suspended its operations due to a case of COVID-19.

Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, which since February has offered to house an increasing number of asylum-seeking migrants released by federal officials, is temporarily closed, parish priest Father Roy Snipes told Border Report. The infected migrant woman was at the facility on Aug. 4, triggering an immediate shutdown and evaluation of procedures at the church, where donkeys and dogs and goats have helped to entertain the migrant children and families.

This file photo shows Father Roy Snipes on Feb. 23, 2021, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where he leads the parish, which has also opened its doors as an overnight migrant shelter. The facility had to be temporarily closed due to COVID-19 and is expected to reopen on Aug. 16. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Now, some of these migrant families are being bussed to the Family Transfer Center in north Houston, near George Bush Intercontinental Airport, where they are given three hot meals, clothing and toiletries, and help with travel plans, Carlos Villarreal, who oversees volunteers at the migrant shelter run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told Border Report on Tuesday.

This is a big uptick in intakes for the Houston center, which has so far in August taken in 1,000 migrants, compared to 683 in all of July, Villarreal said. The Houston facility only accepts migrants who have tested negative for coronavirus, and Villarreal says they administer additional tests there to be certain.

The overnight migrant facility at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church is expected to reopen on Monday, said Albert Solis, who works for Snipes and oversees the care of the migrants. Typically, the church helps about 300 families every night.

Donkeys and goats frolic in the courtyard at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on Feb. 23, 2021, in Mission, Texas. The animals often entertain the migrant families who spend nights at the church’s overnight shelter. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report File Photos)

Solis told Border Report on Tuesday that in the meantime, staff and volunteers are all reviewing and increasing their COVID-19 protocols and screening measures, and they are adding shower facilities for when the migrants return. He added that no staff or volunteers have come down with the sickness.

“All of us tested negative and none of us have symptoms and we were already disinfecting every day as the groups that come and as soon as they leave we go in there and disinfect everything but now we’re kind of upping it a little more,” Solis said.

The closure comes as the region’s largest migrant shelter, the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley’s Humanitarian Respite Center, recently announced it was at capacity and is having trouble accommodating more migrants. Several overflow facilities, like the church, have been utilized. And last week the cities of McAllen and Mission and Hidalgo County partnered with the nonprofit and opened a camp for migrants who test positive to the coronavirus at Anzalduas Park, which runs along the Rio Grande.

A security guard prevents the public from entering Anzalduas Park on Aug. 9, 2021, in Mission, Texas, where 1,000 migrants who test positive for COVID-19 are being housed.(Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The camp had 1,000 migrants on Monday and can hold 1,200 “and that capacity is being increased in anticipation of higher numbers,” McAllen Assistant City Manager Jeff Johnston told commissioners during a meeting on Monday evening.

Video supplied to Border Report shows dozens of families on Monday sitting on blankets and cots on the grass beneath giant oak and ash trees on the sprawling 96-acre park. A volunteer at the facility said the migrants complained of tight quarters inside the sleeping tents and a desire to leave. Local officials have admitted they cannot force the migrants to stay in the park, because they have been given legal documents by the Department of Homeland Security allowing them to travel in the United States.

All the migrants dropped off Border Patrol, however, now are being tested at the park, Johnston announced Monday.

For months, a third-party non-governmental organization had conducted testing in downtown McAllen. Families free of coronavirus or symptoms were allowed to enter the Respite Center or several overflow facilities that have opened up in the McAllen area, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. However, all families will now be tested at the park before being released to various migrant shelters.

The change in operations comes as the Rio Grande Valley is being overwhelmed by migrants, most of whom are coming from Central America. And an increasing number of them — over 8% — are testing positive for COVID-19, Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez said.

Since January, when President Joe Biden took office, the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, just south of the river, has refused to take back migrant families with tender age children — those under 6 — citing a lack of infrastructure to properly house them.

But as COVID-19 cases in South Texas increase, there have been increasing calls from the community and local leaders who are asking for federal and state help.

Hidalgo County Commissioners on Tuesday voted to extend a local disaster declaration declared by Cortez due to the migrant surge and coronavirus cases.

Hidalgo County on Monday reported five deaths and 835 new cases of COVID, bringing the total deaths in this county of nearly 1 million people to nearly 3,000 since the pandemic began.

Source: Hidalgo County Graphic

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is scheduled to visit the RGV on Thursday. It will be his first visit since May 7 when he last came and toured a migrant processing facility in the town of Donna, Texas, during a spike in unaccompanied minor children who were crossing into South Texas.

During a McAllen City Commission meeting on Monday night, commissioners voted to extend a local disaster declaration that was issued by Mayor Javier Villalobos on Aug. 2 due to the migrant surge and number of COVID-19 cases relating to those seeking asylum here.

Perhaps an opening prayer, by McAllen City Commissioner Victor “Seby” Haddad summed up best what local leaders are feeling right now when he said: “We ask that you help all people in need, especially children. Impress upon the hearts of constituents a desire and drive to reach out to government leaders on issues that strain our resources and divide our community and soften our leaders hearts on these issues focusing on what your grace and will would desire.”

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