Infectious disease experts say low vaccination rates, resistance to protective measures such as wearing a mask and the highly transmissible delta variant are driving the current surge of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
But with numerous Republicans criticizing the Biden administration for the rise of immigrants, some of whom are COVID-19-positive, many Americans — particularly the unvaccinated and Republicans — apparently believe those immigrants are driving the country’s COVID-19 surge.
A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 55% of Republicans say “immigrants and tourists bringing COVID-19 into the U.S.” is “a major reason for the current high number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.”
Among unvaccinated adults, 40% listed “immigrants and tourists bringing COVID-19 into the U.S.” as driving up the COVID-19 case counts.
It’s no wonder, given some of the rhetoric coming from Republicans, including Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and others, warning about COVID-19 being spread throughout the U.S. by immigrants.
“Part of the problem is the southern border is open and we’ve got 88 countries that are coming across the border and they don’t have vaccines so none of them are vaccinated and they’re getting dispersed throughout the country,” Reynolds said in July.
“No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies,” DeSantis said in a fundraising letter in August.
“The Biden administration has been releasing immigrants in South Texas that have been exposing Texans to COVID. Some of those people have been put on buses, taking that COVID to other states in the United States,” Abbott told CNBC in March.
There was a surge of new COVID-19 cases that began in mid- to late summer. The number of new cases per day jumped from about 12,000 in mid-June to about 160,000 in late August and early September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID Data Tracker. Simultaneously, there has been a surge of illegal immigration at the Southwest border, with apprehensions of illegal border-crossers jumping from about 75,000 in January to more than 200,000 in July, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
But experts say the latter is not driving the former.
In an Oct. 3 interview on CNN’s “State of the Union,” host Dana Bash asked Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, if the majority of Republicans surveyed by KFF are misinformed.
“Are immigrants a major reason why COVID-19 is spreading in the U.S.?” Bash asked.
“No, absolutely not, Dana,” Fauci said. “I mean, if you just look at the data and look at the people who have gotten infected, look at the people who are in the hospital, look at the people who’ve died, this is not driven by immigrants. This is the problem within our country, the same way it’s a problem with other countries throughout the world.
“I mean, the idea, when you have 700,000 Americans dead, and millions and millions and millions of Americans getting infected, that you don’t want to look outside to the problem,” Fauci said. “The problem is within our own country. Certainly, immigrants can get infected, but they’re not the driving force of this. Let’s face reality here.”
Experts say the evidence is on Fauci’s side.
What the Data on Cases Show
According to the CDC’s COVID Tracker, virtually all of the new cases emerging in the U.S. are caused by the highly transmissible delta variant.
“I have not seen any phylogenetic signal that Delta arrived from Mexico or from South America – in fact, quite the opposite – the variants that have dominated recently south of the USA are very distinct from Delta – 20B/732A in Mexico until mid-May, Gamma & Lamba in Peru, Argentina, & Chile, Gamma in Brazil, Mu in Colombia,” Emma Hodcroft, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Bern in Switzerland and a co-developer of the virus-tracking site Nextstrain, said in an email to FactCheck.org. “And we have not seen these dominate at all in the USA, as one might expect if immigrants carrying these variants were the leading cause of the case rises in the USA.”
Graphs of variants emerging in various countries over time — based on data from GISAID, an international, open source repository of viral genomes — can be viewed on a website created by Hodcroft, who referred to the notion of immigrants driving the COVID-19 spread in the U.S. as a “pernicious bit of misinformation.”
“Instead, the rise in cases in the USA has largely been tied to Delta, which was very likely introduced from the UK and India initially, and probably from other countries across Europe and then the world soon after, as it spread relatively rapidly,” Hodcroft told us. “Delta actually expanded comparatively late into South America, possibly because of much less close ties to the UK and India, and so is very unlikely to be the source of Delta for the USA.”
Dr. Michele Heisler, medical director at Physicians for Human Rights and a professor of internal medicine and public health at the University of Michigan, agreed.
“As Dr. Fauci emphasized, there is no epidemiological evidence that migrants at the U.S. southern border are driving the spread of the delta variant or earlier variants that cause COVID-19,” Heisler told us via email. “When you look at the hot spots of infection with COVID-19 they are all locations with very low rates of vaccination. That is the common denominator. Many of these hotspots are far from any international border and in rural areas with very little presence of migrants. Other areas right on an international border such as the California border with Mexico have not had high rates of infection. Epidemiological data also suggests that the delta variant spread in the United States before it spread in Mexico or Latin America.”
As of Oct. 8, California had just 16 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents reported in the last seven days, second only to Connecticut as the states with the lowest infection rates, according to the New York Times’ COVID-19 mapping site.
Data from the Pan American Health Organization suggests the spread of the delta variant came from the U.S. to Mexico, Heisler said.
In early July, the Americas Society/Council of the Americas reported: “The Delta variant’s spread to Latin America has thus far been limited. Mexico, now experiencing its own uptick in contagion, has the highest confirmed caseload of the variant in the region with just around 600 cases, likely because of its proximity to the United States where the variant is rapidly spreading.”
Although nearly all of the COVID-19 cases in the U.S. currently are caused by the delta variant — deemed by the CDC as a “variant of concern” — the CDC also is monitoring a number of other variants in the U.S. At least some of them appear to have made their way to the U.S. via international travel, not immigration.
Heisler said Americans pointing the finger at immigrants crossing the Southwest border illegally are simply scapegoating.
“All credible sources of evidence point to the same cause: Low vaccination rates are the main driver of coronavirus spread,” Heisler said. “This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated — a public health issue and not a border issue. Officials who scapegoat asylum seekers for COVID-19 are ignoring science while embracing xenophobia and racist tropes equating immigrants with disease vectors. They should instead focus on improving vaccine uptake and advancing common-sense public health measures in their communities.”
The Situation in McAllen, Texas
Nonetheless, the continuing surge of immigrants at the Southwest border — thousands of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 — is raising alarm, particularly among some who live in the U.S. near the Mexican border.
According to an Aug. 4 press release from the city of McAllen, Texas, Catholic Charities and American Medical Response identified more than 7,000 COVID-19-positive immigrants brought to the city since mid-February (from a total of about 87,000 who passed through the city). Although those who tested positive were separated and quarantined, officials worry about the many immigrants who are not apprehended.
Most apprehended immigrants are expelled quickly under a public health law, Title 42. The Trump administration began using the law in March 2020 to expel people at the border to prevent the spread of COVID-19. President Joe Biden has continued its use — controversially — and is fighting in the courts to keep using the law. During the Trump administration, from March 2020 to January 2021 — over 11 months — there were more than 444,000 Title 42 expulsions on the Southwest border. Over the next seven months — February through August — there have been more than 690,000 on Biden’s watch.
The press release from the border city of McAllen says the “sheer number of immigrants being released into the city has become a crisis.”
The largest number of apprehensions are being made in the Rio Grande sector, which includes Hidalgo County’s McAllen.
Hidalgo County officials, speaking on Aug. 5 at a press conference, agreed that the surge of immigration at the border has become a crisis, but warned residents not to blame immigrants for the county’s rising COVID-19 cases.
Hidalgo County Judge Richard Cortez, a Democrat who is the county’s top elected official, said he has seen “increasing evidence on social media and personal communication that people want to blame the current surge of immigrants for our uptick in COVID cases. That simply is not true.”
About 90% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 in Hidalgo County are unvaccinated, he said.
“This is a problem of our own,” he said. “The COVID numbers are going up because people still are not wanting to get vaccinated.”
At the press conference, Ivan Melendez, public health authority for Hidalgo County, said the rising COVID-19 cases in the county are no different than in other places around the country.
“Are the migrating folks part of the problem? Absolutely. The migrating folks are part of the problem. Are they the problem? No,” Melendez said.
Melendez pointed to positivity rates among the migrants, which he said “are almost exactly the positivity rates here.”
“Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No. It’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Melendez said.
We spoke to Melendez by phone, and he said that like other local residents, he is frustrated by the federal response to the surge in immigrants at the border.
“Of course that is going to impact the local people,” he said. “You can’t deny that. There must be some impact. But are they the cause of the problem? No.”
Migrants make up about 3% of those hospitalized for COVID-19 in the county, he said, and “we are not seeing new mutations along the border that have not been seen elsewhere in the U.S.”
“I keep hearing, ‘If it weren’t for these immigrants we wouldn’t have this problem,’” Melendez said. “Here in the epicenter, that’s just not factual. It’s just not true.”
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s COVID-19/Vaccination Project is made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation. The goal of the project is to increase exposure to accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines, while decreasing the impact of misinformation.