Mayor of Texas border city calls on governor to reconsider federal proposal to fund COVID testing for migrants

Texas' Republican Governor Greg Abbott has rejected a proposal from the Biden administration that would reimburse local officials for offering coronavirus testing and shelter to migrants as they await their immigration hearings. Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez joins CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss the potential benefits of federal assistance and why he says it's time for Governor Abbott to "stop playing politics."

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: The Biden administration and the governor of Texas are battling over a proposal to fund coronavirus testing for migrants at the southern border. Together with FEMA, the White House offered to reimburse local officials for providing testing and shelter to families waiting for their immigration hearings. The federal grant money needs approval from the state though, before it can be distributed to communities along the border. Republican Governor Greg Abbott has rejected the pilot program. In a statement to CBS News he said Texas would, quote, "not aid a program that makes our country a magnet for illegal immigration."

The border city of Brownsville, Texas sits at the southern tip of the state. Democratic Mayor Trey Mendez is one of the local officials working with the Biden administration and the Department of Homeland Security to help facilitate testing for migrants entering the US and he joins me now. Welcome, Mayor Mendez. So can you explain which migrants you're testing and why you're seeking help from the Biden administration?

TREY MENDEZ: Sure. The federal government's actually testing the migrants that were part of the MPP Camp in Matamoros, Mexico. There was about 700 of them and I believe that that camp has now been cleared out. So that the federal government did test all those individuals in Mexico.

What the city of Brownsville has been doing is we've been testing for about a month. We've been testing all of the other interior releases, what may have been known previously as catch and release. We are testing all of those individuals and we've been doing so for about a month.

We're doing rapid testing. And just a few days ago, when we saw some news air about the numbers that we had seen, which is about 108 of about 1,700, about a 6.3% positivity rate, we started taking an extra layer of caution. And what we started doing was, we started doing another PCR test just to verify that those first tests were, in fact, accurate. And we've been actually seeing a lot lower rates since then.

LANA ZAK: What are the rates that you're seeing now, Mayor?

TREY MENDEZ: Well, we saw 6.3%. A couple of days ago, we're seeing about 100-- testing about 100 people per day, a little bit more. And we were less than a handful of people now that have tested positive over the last few days. So that gives you a little bit of an idea. It's probably less than 5%, but it does fluctuate.

So I think the 6% is probably accurate. And, you know, keep in mind, at the time that we came out with a 6.3%, the state of Texas itself was about 9%. So it was right there, a little bit less as well.

LANA ZAK: That's interesting, to put that into perspective for us. Well as you mentioned, the overall state, let's talk about your, Governor Greg Abbott. He opposes the White House's reimbursement proposal, but at the same time, he's also blaming the administration for releasing immigrants who he claims are exposing Texans to COVID-19. What's your argument to the Governor?

TREY MENDEZ: Well, you know, I think the Governor needs to really just stop playing politics and trying to counter the President. He really needs to focus on the public health concerns at the border. And if that is what's standing between the administration being able to test individuals or not, I think the Governor needs to back off of that refusal to sign off on it and just go ahead and do it. It'll save the state some resources. It'll help us identify who may be positive or not and make sure they quarantine and follow the CDC guidelines.

LANA ZAK: So to be clear, right now, who is paying for the testing that's currently being done?

TREY MENDEZ: At this point in time, Lana, the ones that we're doing, we actually have a third party service that's been doing that for about a week. Previously, we had actually received state testing. The state actually sent us some testing kits to help us with the situation we had down here, which is kind of ironic.

But the state did send us some rapid tests, about 10,000 of them. Although, over the last week or so, we've been using a third party provider who is doing some PCR testing as well. And that's being paid-- it's not being paid by the city. It's being paid some other way.

LANA ZAK: And can you give us an idea of about how many migrants are entering the US through your city of Brownsville? And have you noticed that there is an increase in the number of migrants since the Biden administration has taken over?

TREY MENDEZ: Sure. Well, I mean, we definitely saw an increase when it comes to the MPP. The MPP Camp had been asked to stay in Mexico. So those individuals certainly-- those numbers did increase. We were able to move through those 700 people probably in about two weeks.

It was maybe about 70 people per day. On the other side, the other asylyum seekers we're seeing, we're seeing-- coming through Brownsville, we're seeing a little bit over 100 per day, and those are all mostly family units. We're not in Brownsville seeing any unaccompanied children here. My understanding is that they're going up the state at another port of entry. But in Brownsville we're seeing family units, about 100 people per day on average.

LANA ZAK: So with about 100 people per day, about 5% of those, which would be about five people testing positive for COVID, what happens to those migrants who are in fact testing positive?

TREY MENDEZ: Well, the migrants that are testing positive, what we're doing is the city is informing them of their positive tests. And then we're asking them to quarantine under CDC guidelines. There is a volunteer group and a charity organization here that is offered to pay for their rooms at local hotels for them to stay at while they quarantine.

LANA ZAK: Vaccination numbers are up. And in a really wonderful way, cases numbers are down and COVID fatigue is a very real thing. And on Tuesday, Governor Abbott announced that he was going to be lifting the mask mandate in Texas. Businesses will fully reopen on Wednesday. Tell us, how will this affect your city?

TREY MENDEZ: Well Lana, I got to be honest, I mean, it's a big concern. We're still not out of the woods, as they say, with COVID. Our community itself actually, we mentioned positivity rates earlier. Our community itself is still looking at an overall positivity rate of close to 20%. Over the last month or so it's been significantly less, maybe around 10% or so.

But it's still, in my opinion and the opinion of a lot of citizens down here, I mean, it doesn't matter if you're Republican or Democrat. You know that the mask works and a lot of people are hesitant to move forward with that, right? So the good thing about the governor's order, the one silver lining you could say, is that it still allows businesses to decide whether or not they're going to have their patrons wear masks. And I'm actually a small business owner myself and we've decided to continue with the mandates that we had previously, which is requiring face masks, checking temperatures at the door and making sure that people have hand sanitizer before coming in.

But I can tell you, I mean, I think it's too soon. We're still not where we want to be with vaccines in the state of Texas. We've had a lot of places that have been requesting vaccines. Local hospitals have been requesting vaccines and haven't received any for some time. So you know, until we get more vaccines and until we have a higher number of Texans and Americans tested-- I'm sorry, vaccinated, then I think that's when we can consider reopening at 100% without masks. But for now, I think it's too soon. And I think we'll see the ramifications of that over the next month.

LANA ZAK: Well hopefully you will be getting more vaccines in your state, and-- and we do hope for all the best for your residents. Mayor Trey Mendez, thank you.

TREY MENDEZ: Thank you.