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'We didn't take a break': Border Patrol agents face COVID-19 crisis as Biden considers relaxing border rules

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MCALLEN, Texas – More than 800 U.S. Border Patrol agents and their support staff in the Rio Grande Valley Sector – nearly one-fourth of the sector's total workforce – have tested positive for the coronavirus since the start of the pandemic, and two agents have died of COVID-19, according to the head of the sector.

Four agents are hospitalized for the coronavirus, including two on respirators. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the agency that oversees the Border Patrol, has confirmed 9,039 COVID-19 cases among its employees, including 32 deaths from the virus.

"We didn't take a break,” U.S. Border Patrol Rio Grande Valley Sector Chief Brian Hastings said in an interview with USA TODAY. “We were out in the field working during this entire epidemic, trying to protect our nation, protect the borders. Unfortunately, we have been exposed. The exposure ratio is high.”

The revelations of Border Patrol infections in the Rio Grande Valley – the southwest border’s busiest stretch for migrant crossings come as the number of migrants encountered by agents climbs to historic highs and the Biden administration considers ending the Title 42 program, a Trump-era policy that allows agents to quickly expel migrants into Mexico to prevent spread of the disease.

Agents encountered 188,829 migrants along the southwest U.S. border in June, keeping on pace to surpass annual highs reached in 2000, according to statistics released Friday by Customs and Border Protection. About one-fourth of those migrants were repeat crossers, many of whom were expelled under Title 42 and attempted to re-enter the country.

Migrant advocates argue the policy places migrants in dangerous Mexican border towns and impedes their right to seek asylum in the USA. Since the policy was implemented in March 2020, Border Patrol agents have expelled more than 845,000 migrants under Title 42, according to agency statistics.

A report in June by Human Rights First, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group, tallied 3,250 kidnappings, rapes and other attacks against asylum seekers on the Mexican side of the border since President Joe Biden took office in January. Last month, 109 advocacy groups sent Biden a letter urging his administration to end Title 42.

“Just maintaining that problematic policy as a holdover doesn’t address the challenges at the border," said Joanna Williams, executive director of the Kino Border Initiative, an Arizona-based advocacy group. "We need to see a plan to robustly build up access to asylum and process asylum seekers at ports of entry."

After the regional government of Tamaulipas in northern Mexico advised U.S. officials this year it would no longer accept women and children younger than 7, the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley Sector began releasing families into the USA to await their immigration hearings, Hastings said. Unaccompanied children are briefly detained and released to the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Most single adults are returned to Mexico under the policy.

Many migrants arrive without facial coverings and pose a risk to agents processing and sheltering them, Hastings said. Further raising alarm: This week, coronavirus infections in Mexico rose by 29%, compared with the previous week.

Mexican officials in Tamaulipas and Matamoros reported to Hastings that their hospitals are filled to capacity with coronavirus patients, he said. About one-fifth of Mexicans have been fully vaccinated, compared with nearly half of U.S. residents.

This week, officials in Hidalgo County, Texas, which includes McAllen, warned they’re seeing their own uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, especially among unvaccinated residents.

“We have been very worried about COVID,” Hastings said. “We've had a difficult time with COVID.”

In the field, Border Patrol agents intercepting migrants between ports of entry slip on gloves and masks before processing them and provide the migrants with paper masks. The sheer number of those coming across creates unease among agents.

This year, the sector has encountered more than 359,000 migrants – more than any other sector along the southwest border, Hastings said.

"Our numbers are going up, and they will continue going up," Border Patrol agent Jesse Moreno said shortly after helping to apprehend three migrants trying to cross into the USA without proper documentation.

Hastings said he’s particularly worried about an outbreak in his sector because of how overrun his holding facilities are: Migrants are crammed together in holding pens, and agents are tasked with processing them in close quarters. The sector’s facilities, including nine stations and a shelter in nearby Donna, Texas, are designed to hold about 1,200 migrants. As of Tuesday, agents had more than 3,000 migrants in their custody, he said.

About 47% of his agents are assigned to transport, watch and process detained migrants, putting them in close proximity with potential virus carriers, he said.

If Title 42 is rescinded, Hastings said, he envisions a steep rise in the number of single adults arriving at the border and overwhelming his sector’s holding facilities.

“We're seeing apprehensions and expulsions go up,” he said. “I'm very concerned about Title 42 going away.”

Contributing: The Associated Press

Follow Jervis on Twitter at: @MrRJervis.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Border Patrol agents in Rio Grande Valley face daily COVID-19 risks

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