SOMERTON — One by one, a voice called out the names of 169 people who have just been released by the US Border Patrol. Migrants rose from folding chairs in a clinic warehouse and walked towards a table of blue-robed workers, who dabbed their mouths.
All but two of the Cuban women tested negative for COVID-19 this February morning. They were quarantined in motel rooms, while other migrants boarded charter buses to Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix for flights across the United States.
Theirs were among just seven of 5,301 tests the Regional Center for Borders Health near Yuma, Arizona, conducted last month for released migrants that were positive – a rate of 0.1%
COVID-19 rates are plummeting among migrants crossing the border from Mexico as the Biden administration faces a deadline Wednesday to end or expand sweeping asylum restrictions that aim to limit the spread of the virus. Lower rates raise more questions about the scientific basis of a public health order that has resulted in the deportation of migrants from the United States more than 1.7 million times since March 2020 without the possibility of seeking asylum.
While there is no overall rate for migrants, test results from several major corridors for illegal border crossings suggest it is well below levels that have raised concerns among US officials.
In California, 54 of 2,877 migrants tested positive in the first two weeks of March, according to the state Department of Social Services. That’s a rate of just 1.9%, down from the January 8 peak of 28.2%.
In Pima County, Arizona, which includes Tucson, the seven-day positivity rate among migrants did not exceed 1.3% in early March and fell to 0.9% on March 10. The seven-day rate topped 5% on just two days in the last three months of last year. Then, as the omicron variant spread, it soared into double digits for most of January, peaking at 19.2% on January 12 and dropping below 5% on February 12.
McAllen, Texas, the largest city in the busiest corridor for illegal crossings, has a higher rate among migrants – 11.3% for the week ending March 16 – but it has always been lower than the general population . Only two of the 24 border counties had high rates in the general population: Hidalgo, which includes McAllen, and Yuma in Arizona.
The rate among migrants in McAllen peaked at 20.8% in the last week of January, when it was double that of the general population. It bottomed out at 1.4% in the last week of November, when the general population was at 6.2%.
As mask mandates have been lifted, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is under increasing pressure to fully restore asylum by ending Title 42, named for a 1944 public health law. Critics say it has been an excuse to evade asylum obligations under US law and international treaties.
Washington federal appeals judge Justin Walker wrote this month that it was “far from clear that the CDC order does any good” for public health. Walker, who was nominated by President Donald Trump, noted that the Biden administration has not provided detailed evidence to support the restrictions.
“The CDC order in some ways resembles a relic from an era without vaccines, with few tests, few therapeutics and little certainty,” Walker wrote for a three-judge panel.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky noted a drop in rates when she ended asylum limits for unaccompanied migrant children on March 11, while keeping them for adults and families with children. In August, US border officials began testing children traveling alone in their busiest areas: positives fell to 6% in the first week of March, from a high of nearly 20% in early February.
The White House and the Department of Homeland Security said decisions on Title 42 rest with the CDC. Walensky told reporters on Wednesday that the CDC was reviewing the data ahead of next week’s deadline, noting that its two-month renewal at the end of January was near the peak of the omicron variant.
The scientific arguments for Title 42 were met with skepticism from the start.
The Associated Press reported in 2020 that Vice President Mike Pence ordered the CDC to use its emergency powers, quashing agency scientists who said there was no evidence it would slow the coronavirus.
Anne Schuchat, the second-highest-ranked CDC through last May, told members of Congress after she left that the asylum limits had no basis as a public health measure when they were introduced.
“Most of the evidence at the time did not support this policy proposal,” she said.
Title 42 also has supporters. In a ruling this month in a lawsuit over the order, U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman in Fort Worth, Texas, said, “There should be no disagreement that current immigration policies should focus on stopping the spread of COVID-19.”
Even though large-scale deportations have been carried out under Title 42, the United States has processed more than 2.8 million cases under normal immigration laws, which allow people to seek asylum.
With costs and strained diplomatic relations limiting deportations to many countries, migrants are often handed over to non-governmental groups and ordered to appear in immigration court later. Groups test for COVID-19.
In El Paso, the House of the Annunciation saw positives dip to around 2% among the roughly 175 migrants it tested daily in early March, director Ruben Garcia said. Positives were close to 40% at the peak of the omicron variant, he said.
In Arizona, at the Regional Center for Binational Health, monthly rates peaked at 3% last year.
Still, Amanda Aguirre, its president, is wary of lifting Title 42.
“My concern is that at any time we are going to see new variations coming into this area,” she said.
The Val Verde Border Humanitarian Coalition, which tests migrants in the bustling Del Rio area of Texas, said it had gone several weeks without a single positive result.
“Yesterday there was one positive and today there was one positive – that’s out of hundreds tested,” the band wrote last week in response to questions.