The claim: Coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S. came from migrants at the Mexico border
New coronavirus cases in the United States are averaging more than 60,000 per day for the first time in more than three months. Weekly COVID-19 deaths are up, too.
In response, several states have reinstituted restrictions, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended Americans – including those who are fully vaccinated – wear face masks indoors.
Delta originated in India before making its way to the U.S. But on Facebook, some people have other ideas about its origins.
The image accumulated more than 16,000 shares in just over a week. Similar posts from conservative Facebook pages tap into the notion that the Biden administration’s immigration policies are to blame for the spread of coronavirus variants.
Over the past year, there has been a surge of migrants heading to the U.S. from countries in Central America, predominantly Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The reasons for that surge are complex, but they include worsening economic situations due to COVID-19, cartel violence, natural disasters and corruption.
COVID-19 has spread in immigration detention centers along the border. But migrants aren’t thought to be a significant source of the coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S.
“There is no evidence whatsoever that this is a true statement,” Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, an associate professor of medicine at the University of Colorado, said in an email.
USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the post for comment.
Variants spread in US before Central America
Public health officials are monitoring four notable coronavirus variants in the U.S. None of them circulated in Central America first.
That’s according to data from GISAID, a nonprofit organization that tracks the genetic sequencing of viruses. Each of the four variants started circulating in the U.S. before countries like Mexico.
Take delta, for example.
The variant was first detected in India in December before spreading to the U.S. in March, according to the CDC. A data visualization from GISAID shows the variant spread directly to the U.S. from India and the United Kingdom between March and April. In May, Americans brought the variant to Mexico, where some cases from India had already been identified.
The alpha, beta and gamma coronavirus variants also spread to the U.S. before circulating in Central America, according to GISAID’s data.
Alpha was initially detected in the U.K. before spreading to the U.S. in December, according to the CDC. Beta (first detected in South Africa) and gamma (first identified in travelers from Brazil) both made their way to the U.S. in January.
“I am sure that there is some transmission at the border, but it is not the only route. People are traveling much more these days,” said Franco-Paredes. “There are multiple manners in which this coronavirus reaches U.S. soil.”
Migrants face COVID-19 restrictions
Even if the coronavirus variants had started circulating in Central America before the U.S., it’s unlikely migrants would have played a significant role in spreading them, experts say.
That’s because traffic at the U.S. borders has been curtailed amid the pandemic. The U.S. has limited non-essential travel from Canada and Mexico since March 2020. That same month, the Trump administration also invoked Title 42, a federal public health law.
The policy, issued by the CDC, allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to expel migrants on the grounds that their entry to the U.S. could worsen the coronavirus pandemic. Except for children and some families, migrants who arrive at the border without permission face apprehension and removal proceedings or immediate expulsion.
The Biden administration was expected to exempt all migrant families from that policy in late July. But so far, it hasn’t.
The administration reportedly backed off the plan due to concerns about rising COVID-19 infections and another influx of migrants seeking asylum, according to reports from the Wall Street Journal and other news outlets. On July 21, the Biden administration extended the closure of the U.S.-Mexico border until Aug. 21, citing concerns about the coronavirus.
Since January, when the first coronavirus variants started circulating in the U.S., Border Patrol has reported more than 625,000 Title 42 expulsions along the southwest border. Over the same time period, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported thousands of COVID-19 cases among detained migrants.
There’s no definitive percentage of migrants who have tested positive, but independent fact-checking organizations have debunked the notion that they are a significant source of infections in the U.S.
USA TODAY asked state and local health departments in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California to comment on the claim in the Facebook post. Officials who responded said they had no data to indicate migrants were a significant source of local COVID-19 variant infections.
For example, in Hidalgo County, Texas – home of the largest migrant processing facility in the country – no migrants have tested positive for a coronavirus variant.
“There have been (34) confirmed cases of COVID-19 variants in Hidalgo County – not a single one involves a migrant,” Carlos Sanchez, the county’s head of public affairs, said in an email.
USA TODAY reached out to Border Patrol and ICE for comment.
Our rating: False
Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that the coronavirus variants circulating in the U.S. came from migrants at the U.S-Mexico border. Data shows the variants started circulating in the U.S. before many Central American countries and first came to the U.S. from other places. Public health experts, as well as state and local officials, say there’s no evidence migrants at the border are a significant source of coronavirus variant infections.
Our fact-check sources:
- USA TODAY, July 27, ‘New science is worrisome’: CDC recommends wearing masks indoors, again. What that means for vaccinated Americans.
- USA TODAY, July 28, Google, Facebook mandate vaccines to employees; states react to CDC mask guidance change; virus deaths over 2,000 per week: COVID-19 news
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, accessed July 29, COVID Data Tracker
- Austin American-Statesman, March 29, Fact-check: Is the surge of migrant children arriving at border a result of Biden policies?
- USA TODAY, July 1, Cartels reap growing profits in the smuggling of migrants across the US-Mexico border
- Kaiser Health News, July 28, How mutations led to the most transmissible COVID-19 virus yet: the delta variant
- Dr. Carlos Franco-Paredes, July 29, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- Turning Point USA, July 27, Facebook
- Conservatarian Hooligans, July 27, Facebook
- Federal Register, March 24, 2020, Control of Communicable Diseases; Foreign Quarantine: Suspension of Introduction of Persons Into United States From Designated Foreign Countries or Places for Public Health Purposes
- PolitiFact, March 17, Facebook post misleads on number of border apprehensions under Biden, Trump
- USA TODAY, March 26, Biden continues to use Title 42, a Trump-era immigration policy. But he’s made one key change.
- Arizona Republic, May 27, COVID-19 cases spiking again at some ICE detention centers. Critics say ICE failed to vaccinate detainees.
- Wall Street Journal, July 28, Restrictions for Migrant Families at U.S.-Mexico Border Won’t Be Lifted as Covid Cases Surge
- Carlos Sanchez, July 30, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- The Washington Post, Aug. 13, 2019, Inside the Border Patrol’s largest migrant processing center
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, July 29, About Variants of the Virus that Causes COVID-19
- USA TODAY, July 30, Delta variant substantially more contagious than other variants, CDC presentation warns
- GISAID, accessed July 30, Tracking of Variants
- University of Colorado, accessed July 30, Moving Beyond the Clinical Encounter: Carlos Franco-Paredes works to protect detainees from COVID-19
- Associated Press, March 10, No evidence migrants at border significantly spreading virus
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 12, First Identified Cases of SARS-CoV-2 Variant P.1 in the United States — Minnesota, January 2021
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, March 12, Travel from the United Kingdom to the United States by a Symptomatic Patient Infected with the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.1.7 Variant — Texas, January 2021
- The Washington Post, March 5, How travel brought two covid variants to the U.S., according to the CDC
- Department of Homeland Security, Oct. 19, 2020, Fact Sheet: DHS Measures on the Border to Limit the Further Spread of Coronavirus
- USA TODAY, July 21, US extends Mexico, Canada border restrictions through Aug. 21 despite Canada’s plan to allow fully vaccinated Americans
- Chief Patrol Agent Brian Hastings, July 25, Twitter
- US Border Patrol Del Rio Sector, July 25, Facebook
- Google Reverse Image Search, accessed July 30
- USA TODAY, July 17, ‘We didn’t take a break’: Border Patrol agents face COVID-19 crisis as Biden considers relaxing border rules
- The Washington Post, July 28, Along Mexico border, covid spike and more migrant families stall plans to end Title 42 expulsions
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection, accessed July 30, Nationwide Enforcement Encounters: Title 8 Enforcement Actions and Title 42 Expulsions
- Vera Institute of Justice, accessed July 30, Tracking COVID-19 in Immigration Detention
- U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, accessed July 30, ICE Guidance on COVID-19
- California Department of Public Health, July 30, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- David Morgan, July 29, Email exchange with USA TODAY
- PolitiFact, July 28, US-Mexico border not ‘wide open,’ most people trying to enter US are turned away
- PolitiFact, April 12, What we know about COVID-19 testing for migrants at the southern border
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Our fact-check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.