LAREDO, Texas – At an event in Laredo last Friday, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar kept boasting that a visit he and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn were making to the border region would be the only one that was bipartisan in nature.

Cuellar is a Democrat and Cornyn a Republican. Cuellar predicted a Republican delegation from Congress would be coming soon to see a much-publicized surge in asylum-seekers crossing the Rio Grande. He said border residents could expect a similar visit from Democrats in Washington.

Cuellar and Cornyn held a meeting with invited VIPs about the asylum-seekers at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. After the meeting they held a news conference at the same location.

And while their visit to a border detention facility for migrants in Carrizo Springs may have been bipartisan, their answer to a question from a reporter showed they have very different takes on what needs to be done. 

The question focused on a recent announcement by Gov. Greg Abbott that he would not accept FEMA’s help in testing migrants for COVID-19. Abbott said he would not help because border security is “100 percent” a federal responsibility. Yet, in a contradictory move, Abbott said he would be sending additional DPS troopers to Starr County to help with border security.

The Texas Tribune reported that the Department of Homeland Security had “tried to use Federal Emergency Management Agency dollars to help local officials test migrants released from federal custody and isolate them if they test positive.”

The Tribune, quoting CNN, said the grant money needed state approval to be allocated.

“Abbott seemed to make clear Thursday that he was not interested in the federal offer. He argued in a statement that border security is “strictly a federal responsibility,” and thus the Biden administration alone should “test, screen, and quarantine” migrants who may have COVID-19,” the Tribune said.

In response to a question from the Rio Grande Guardian, Cuellar said border communities could bypass Abbott to access federal resources to test migrants for COVID-19.

“We set up the mechanism to bypass the state of Texas in 2019. As you will recall in 2014 we set up a humanitarian relief bill, (in) appropriations. The state was getting millions of dollars but Governor Perry, Governor Abbott, said, we are not going to do that,” Cuellar said.

“I spoke to their offices and they said they are not going to do that. So then, in 2019, quite honestly, I just came up with the mechanism to bypass them and as you know, it worked well in 2019.”

Cuellar said there is no need to test single adult migrants for the coronavirus because they are being returned immediately to their home countries.

“If they are kids they will be put in with Health and Human Services and we heard today that they test them several times to make sure… so the kids are bing tested,” Cuellar said.

“Let’s talk about family units. Border Patrol does not test anybody. So, when they release them it depends what happens with those family units. If they go to NGOs, Mike Smith will tell you, and Sister Norma, they will test them there. But if they have the tickets ready they will be taken over to the bus station and nobody will test them.”

NGOs are non-governmental organizations, such as non-profits. The Rev. Michael Smith is executive director of the Holding Institute Community Center in Laredo. He spoke at the Cornyn-Cuellar event. Sister Norma Pimentel is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Cuellar said Greyhound Buses wanted they are taking asylum seekers all over the country. He said the company is worried its drivers and passengers could be exposed to COVID-19 if the migrants were not tested.

“There are a number of them that are not tested. There is money, as I mentioned. We had a conversation yesterday to try to get the money that the mayor and other folks are looking for,” Cuellar said.

“There is money but we have to speed up this process. There is a way to bypass what the governor is saying. There is another pot of money to get to the NGOs and cities.”

Cuellar said he changed the law specifically because the State of Texas would not assist in humanitarian relief during a previous surge of migrants in 2014.

“We changed it and put the first $30 million in 2019 to bypass the State of Texas, quite honestly because Perry said no, Abbott said no. There is another system and there is a one-pager that I will provide to you,” Cuellar told reporters. 

“We added more money under the rescue plan. The money is there for the cities and counties to do testing. Brownsville does testing I believe. The city of Laredo does not. Mike Smith does testing here, Sister Norma does testing also. But if they (asylum seekers) go directly to a bus station they don’t.”

Sen. Cornyn had a very different response to Rep. Cuellar, in answer to the Rio Grande Guardian’s question.

“You are not going to solve this problem by just spending more and more money by trying to provide more and more resources to care for this flow of migrants because the number is just going to continue to get higher and higher and higher,” Cornyn said.

“You cannot build enough facilities, you can’t create enough testing, you cannot create enough resources to deal with this unless you deal somehow with the pull factors.”

Experts say the “pull factor” for undocumented migrants is the lure of working in a country that is more wealthy than they one they are leaving.  

“That is why we have to get to a better place when it comes to getting people with legitimate asylum claims in front of an immigration judge so they can make their case. And those that can’t would be returned to their country of origin,” Cornyn said.

“Right now the biggest problem is that we have got 1.2 million immigration cases backlogged, people are given a notice to reappear months, maybe years later, and guess what, most of them don’t show up.”

Cornyn added: “Treat people humanely, make sure people with legitimate claims can have those vindicated and enforced before an immigration judge. But make sure we sort out the flow of humanity coming across the border.”

One of the VIPs invited to speak at the Cornyn-Cuellar meeting on asylum seekers was Laredo Mayor Pete Saenz. 

“I have always said, and I still do, we are the recipients of Washington’s policies, just like the rest of the country, be it Republican or Democrat. Even though you may complain and fuss and this and that, ultimately, Washington gets what they want, what they are pushing for, based on policies,” Saenz said.

“Of course, they (the federal government) have got the might, the muscle and money and so on. And that is fine. I recognize that. But as a mayor, when policies are instituted or changed and they place a city or local community at a disadvantage financially or whatever, resources we might have to apply… we can help, we can accommodate, but all of that costs money. It takes a lot of resources.”

Saenz said border residents are Americans and are willing to do their part (with regard to security and humanitarian aid).

“But the federal government needs to step up, be it Trump or President Biden now. That is basically the message I want to send. We are here, we can help but there are limits.”

Saenz praised the NGOs that have been helping migrants being left in border communities.

“Thank God that they (the NGOs) are stepping up like they usually do. They are meant to step up. But they have got budgets and bed capacities. Once that capacity is exhausted, where do we go? Is the federal government going to step up? That is my concern.”

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