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Could the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic be a border issue?
According to Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, immigration at the southern border “is part of the problem” as the United States and Iowa experiences a resurgence in virus cases. During an event this past week in Des Moines, she said she was concerned that migrants crossing the border were unvaccinated and traveling throughout the country.
“As they’re trying to impact additional restrictions on Americans, we’ve got people coming across the border that haven’t been vaccinated, and so that’s also something we need to continue to look at,” Reynolds told reporters, according to the Capital Dispatch.
Pat Garrett, spokesman for the Governor’s Office, later told The Fact Checker that Reynolds was speaking about the impact this could have on the spread of the coronavirus nationwide, not just in Iowa.
We’ll look into whether migrants who are unvaccinated are a factor in the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
Reynolds is not the first political figure in the United States to link migrants crossing the border from Mexico with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases nationwide.
Others, including U.S. Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas, have called on Democratic President Joe Biden to take action to “secure our southern border” to prevent a further surge. U.S. Rep. Henry Cueller, a Democrat who represents Texas’s 28th Congressional District, also raised alarms about a surge in cases in the Rio Grande Valley this past week that resulted in new cases among dozens of Border Patrol agents and hundreds of hospitalizations in nearby communities. Cueller pointed to the increase in migrant encounters at the border.
Like the rest of the country, the border has seen a spike in new coronavirus cases.
In response to the Fact Checker’s request for sourcing, Garrett pointed to two articles from Fox News, including one report that 135 detainees tested positive for COVID-19 in the first two weeks of July. These migrants were apprehended in the Rio Grande Valley sector, one of the busiest destinations for individuals crossing the border.
Based on the most recent data from this past week, there were more than 1,200 active COVID-19 cases across 51 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities nationwide. Some of the worst outbreaks were occurring at facilities in Arizona, Texas and Louisiana, states with lower vaccination rates overall.
There have been more than 19,000 total COVID-19 cases in ICE facilities and nine related deaths since the start of the pandemic, data shows.
The country has been seeing record levels of children, families and adults coming to the U.S.-Mexico border throughout this past year. The vast majority of those migrants, however, are not making their way across the border, data from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection shows.
According to CBP, border agents encountered more than 188,000 individuals on the southern border in June. Of those, roughly 178,000 were Title 42 expulsions or were inadmissible individuals under Title 8, data shows.
Federal agents have made more than 500,000 expulsions under Title 42, a public health policy instituted under the Trump administration to prevent migrants and asylum-seekers from entering the United States due to concerns over the coronavirus. Children and some families are exempt from this policy.
The Biden administration has kept this policy in place. On Monday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended the use of Title 42 to keep the public health order in effect until Aug. 21. The CDC has said it will reassess the need for this order every 60 days.
But to Reynolds’ point, how many migrants reaching the border are vaccinated against COVID-19? Reports show only a limited number of migrants have been inoculated against COVID-19 while in detention facilities.
About 20,000 detainees in ICE custody have received at least one vaccine dose as of this past week, according to the Washington Post.
Other figures from early May show a little more than 8,000 migrants in ICE detention have received a vaccine dose, according to a CBS News report.
Immigration experts have criticized the Biden administration for its handling of the vaccine roll out at the border and not directing ICE to play a more active role in administering shots. Instead, ICE has deferred that task state and local authorities, “especially in red states where there is little appetite for prioritizing immigrants, or pushing for vaccines at all,” according to Vox.
It’s unclear whether vaccination rates among those migrants affect COVID-19 spread in Iowa.
It’s also unclear how much of a factor these individuals are playing in the recent surge nationwide. Back in March, a public health official in Texas told the Associated Press that the surge of immigration at the border is not the biggest factor in the spread of COVID-19.
“Is it the biggest source of infection to our whole community?” Dr. James Castillo, the public health authority for Cameron County, located in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, told the AP. “No, it’s maybe one source, and there’s a lot of different sources.”
That was before the highly contagious delta variant was widely circulating. However, experts have found that the hardest-hit states by this new variant are those with relatively low vaccination rates among its population, including Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.
That would indicate that unvaccinated residents in those states play as much a factor, if not more, in allowing the virus to spread in those areas.
Unvaccinated migrants could be playing a role in the recent surge of new COVID-19 cases on the southern part of the United States, but the blame shouldn’t be placed solely on migrants’ shoulders. The highly contagious delta variant has been spurred on by low vaccination rates throughout the rest of the United States, not just at the border.
While vaccination rates appear to be low among migrants and asylum-seekers, data shows few are actually crossing the border and making their way into the United States as a result of federal policies during the ongoing pandemic.
We give Reynolds a C for her claims.
The Fact Checker team checks statements made by an Iowa political candidate/officeholder or a national candidate/officeholder about Iowa, or in ads that appear in our market.
Claims must be independently verifiable.
We give statements grades from A to F based on accuracy and context.
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This Fact Checker was researched and written by Michaela Ramm of The Gazette.