Border Patrol Released Covid-Positive, Asylum-Seeking Grandmother Now in Hospital

The unidentified woman was picked up with her daughter and granddaughter by Border Patrol agents in the Arizona desert, then turned over to Catholic Social Services, who discovered her illness during a medical exam at a Tucson shelter.

Catholic Social Services manages a shelter in Tucson, Casa Alitas, for asylum seekers. The immigrants, who are picked up by Border Patrol in the Arizona desert and funneled to Tucson, are outfitted with clothing and other necessities, then fan out across the nation to stay with sponsors while they await asylum hearings. (Courthouse News photo / Brad Poole)

TUCSON, Ariz. (CN) — A grandmother released from Border Patrol custody in Arizona Tuesday was rushed to intensive care after she tested positive for Covid-19 and her blood oxygen level was found to be dangerously low, a county official said Wednesday.

The woman, who was not identified, arrived in Tucson with her daughter and granddaughter. She was released from Border Patrol custody into the care of Catholic Social Services, which maintains Tucson’s only shelter for asylum seekers. The mother and daughter did not show Covid-19 symptoms and are in isolation at a local hotel, said Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.

“The grandmother had a blood oxygen content, I believe, of about 68%, and was immediately transported to a hospital and I understand is now in the ICU,” Huckelberry said. “Our public health staff is going to follow up with Border Patrol. That should not have occurred.”

Huckelberry’s revelation came during an emergency county board meeting called to approve contracts to transport immigrants from small remote towns in the Arizona desert — mainly Yuma and Ajo — to Tucson, where Catholic Social Services can house them temporarily.

Until earlier this year, the immigrants were brought to Tucson by Immigration and Customs Protection, but now they are being released within 35 miles of where they are detained, Huckelberry said.

Supervisor Steve Christy, a Republican, blamed the transportation problem on President Joe Biden’s administration for allowing asylum seekers to enter the country to wait for hearings. This policy change from the previous administration has led to an influx of immigrants who had been waiting in Mexico, sometimes in squalid conditions for months.

“This is a crisis of epic proportions that is caused by the current administration in Washington, D.C., and it is the current administration in Washington, D.C. that should be addressing this situation, not Pima County,” Christy said.

The problem will get worse, we don’t have adequate housing, and Pima County residents have worked hard to keep Covid-19 infection and transmission rates down, Christy said.

“This is a bigger problem that Pima County can handle or should handle, and it needs to go back to the federal government,” Christy said before voting against the transportation contracts.

Supervisor Adelita Grijalva, a Democrat, urged the board to cast politics aside and focus on public health. These families need safe transportation and housing, Grijalva said.

“The Border Patrol is going to leave them in different communities in Pima County, so it is a county issue, regardless of whether we agree with the situation or not,” she said.

Thousands of single men are being turned away at the border, leaving mostly mothers and children awaiting asylum hearings, Grijalva said.

“So we’re really talking about children. If a child came up to you and said, ‘I need help,’ the only humane thing to do is to provide that help,” she said.

Grijalva said the surge is not a crisis, and Huckelberry agreed.

“It’s not at comparable yet to the surge we experienced in April of 2019, where we received over a thousand asylum seekers in the space of just a few days,” Huckelberry said.

On Tuesday, the Town Council in Gila Bend, where about 2,000 Arizonans live 50 miles southwest of Phoenix, unanimously declared an emergency over the release of asylum seekers there.

“We do not have the resources. We simply do not have it,” Mayor Chris Riggs told the council during a normally scheduled meeting. “We need help. End of story. Period.”

The goal of the declaration is to push Maricopa County, home to Phoenix, to offer resources to transport immigrants, some of whom the town took to safety in two borrowed vans Tuesday, Riggs said.

“After yesterday, we were not able to get transportation. None of the governmental groups were willing to help, and none of the non-governmental groups were willing to help,” he said.

In response to the declaration, Customs and Border Protection offered a statement – which it repeated for this story – that the anyone taken into Border Patrol custody is evaluated on a case-by-case basis following the laws of the U.S. and Mexico, recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control, and the health situation of the individual.

“The border is not open, and the vast majority of people are being returned,” CBP spokesman John Mennell said in the emailed statement.

On Tuesday, 72 immigrants arrived at Casa Alitas — 16 from Ajo, Ariz.; 40 from Yuma, Ariz.; and 26 released directly by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Casa Alitas Program is housing the immigrants in a converted Pima County juvenile detention facility. Numbers have fluctuated from a couple dozen up to around 100 daily, said program Lead Coordinator Diego Lopez.

Although the pandemic forced Casa Alitas to lower capacity from 150 to about 70, the non-profit also has about a dozen hotel rooms available if needed. Because all of the immigrants have sponsors, they typically only need shelter for a few days, Lopez said.

He is not concerned about Catholic Social Services’ ability to handle the influx of immigrants.

“I can only speak for Tucson and the situation in southern Arizona, but I think we are ready.”

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