EDINBURG, Texas – Hidalgo County’s chief administrative officer says local residents should be more concerned with getting a Covid-19 vaccine than worrying if recently arrived migrants have the virus. 

Eduardo Olivarez also came to the defense of Sister Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley, who came in for criticism for challenging an executive order imposed by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The order directs the Texas Department of Public Safety to stop any vehicle “upon reasonable suspicion” of transporting “migrants who have been detained by CBP for crossing the border illegally or who would have been subject to expulsion under Title 42.”

In a statement, Pimentel urged state and local leaders to work with her organization and other community partners “to help ensure that all individuals, whether long-term community members or newcomers fleeing violence are treated with dignity and that together that we work to keep our community safe.”

Olivarez gave an exclusive interview to the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service at a luncheon to celebrate Operation Lone Star, the annual summer program that provides free medical services to border residents courtesy of the Texas State Guard.

Asked about reports that asylum-seeking migrants released into the community by the Department of Homeland Security may have Covid-19, Olivarez said:

“For me as a public health servant in the community, our No. 1 concern is the safety and security of our community, regardless of where they are from. We are looking at our vaccination programs. We are looking at our testing programs, our intervention programs.”

Olivarez, pictured above, went on to praise Pimentel.

“Sister Norma has done heroic work. She is a true, true, patriot of humanity. She has done some wonderful work. We are under difficult circumstances, difficult situations. But I feel confident that our county judges, our mayors in the state of Texas, and even our representatives at the federal level and under the Biden Administration, I feel that all of this will soon get resolved, or at least some kind of collaboration will take place.”

Olivarez said his focus is on public health, not the politics of the situation.

“Really, I leave that to Judge Cortez, I leave that to the elected officials. I am just a community servant. But what I do ask everybody right now is don’t focus on this issue, focus on the importance of getting your vaccination. Your vaccine will protect you from being in the hospital.”

Richard Cortez is Hidalgo county judge.

Olivarez said there are currently 181 COVID-19 patients in Hidalgo County hospitals. Of these, 15 are children. He said more are being assessed for admittance into hospital.

“The best thing we can do is get our vaccines. Ninety percent of the people being admitted into the hospital are non-vaccinated. So, what does that tell you? Vaccines work. Vaccines are helpful to lessen any impact of Covid. It is not going to prevent Covid but it will lessen the medical impact.”

Olivarez concluded the interview by reiterating his main point.

“My No. 1 message today is please get your vaccine. If you are between 18 and 30 and have this concept of, well, I do not need it because I am healthy, I am strong, I do not need it, that is not true. You do need it because you need to protect the others who are not as healthy and as strong as you are. So, think of the community, think of our neighbors, our friends and our family. Please get vaccinated.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has defended its policies for ensuring the migrants that are processed for asylum are healthy.

“CBP provides migrants with PPE from the moment they are taken into custody, and migrants are required to keep masks on at all times, including when they are transferred or in the process of being released. If anyone exhibits signs of illness in CBP custody, they are referred to local health systems for appropriate testing, diagnosis, and treatment,” said Justin Long, headquarters branch chief in CBP’s media relations department. 

“CBP takes its responsibility to prevent the spread of communicable diseases very seriously. We value our partners in local communities whose work is critical to moving individuals safely out of CBP/USBP custody and through the appropriate immigration pathway.”  

The Catholic Legal Immigration Network made clear its opposition to Gov. Abbott’s executive order. 

Viviana Westbrook, CLINIC’s state and local advocacy attorney, said: “This order is an affront to human dignity and morality. It promotes racial profiling and punishes organizations, including CLINIC affiliates, for providing vital, life-saving services to immigrants. Villainizing people fleeing violence, extreme poverty and environmental disasters makes our communities less safe and our country less strong. This order, its origins and its goals are a direct attack on all of us, undermining the core value shared by Catholics and other people of faith across this country — we can and must welcome.” 

Meanwhile, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told Gov. Abbott to “immediately rescind” his new executive order.

“The order violates federal law in numerous respects, and Texas cannot lawfully enforce the executive order against any federal official or private parties working with the United States,” Garland told Abbott in a letter.

Garland said his department would “pursue all appropriate legal remedies” if Abbott continues to implement transportation restrictions on migrants.

Abbott responded: “It is clear that the Biden Administration fundamentally misunderstands what is truly happening at the Texas-Mexico border. The current crisis at our southern border, including the overcrowding of immigration facilities and the devastating spread of COVID-19 that the influx of non-citizens is causing, is entirely the creation of the Biden Administration and its failed immigration policies.”

Abbott said that by choosing to not enforce immigration laws and by ending President Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” program, Biden had directly caused an unprecedented crisis. He said the fact that migrants are entering the U.S. from countries with lower vaccination rates than the U.S. is a “grave” concern for public health.

“It would be of some solace if the federal government were conducting appropriate COVID-19 testing and other mitigation strategies, but to the contrary, we hear too many reports of the federal government recklessly failing to do so and instead admitting into the United States — and Texas — migrants from over 150 countries, many of whom are testing positive for COVID-19,” Abbott said.

“In short, the Biden Administration is jeopardizing the health and safety of Texans on a daily basis by refusing to follow the law. And it’s not just Texans; these irresponsible policies and actions by the Biden Administration are endangering the lives of many Americans as well as the unlawful immigrants themselves. I will take every available step consistent with the law to fulfill my duty to protect the health and safety of all Texans.”

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