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‘Misleading and dangerous’ — Human rights groups condemn Gov. Abbott’s rhetoric on South African migrants at the border

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott holds a press conference along the Rio Grande Tuesday in Del Rio Sept. 21, 2021.
Ronald W. Erdrich/Reporter-News/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters Co
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott holds a press conference along the Rio Grande Tuesday in Del Rio Sept. 21, 2021.

Governor Greg Abbott responded over the Thanksgiving weekend to the Biden administration’s recent COVID-19 travel ban on South African countries, by claiming on Twitter that some migrants being apprehended at the border originate from South Africa.

“Biden banned travel from South Africa because of the new Covid variant,” began Abbott’s tweet. “Immigrants have recently been apprehended crossing our border illegally from South Africa. Biden is doing nothing to stop immigrants from South Africa entering illegally. Pure politics and hypocrisy.”

But human rights groups are saying that Abbott’s claim on South African migrants arriving from Mexico may be a stretch.

“There is no data to back that up that we know of,” said Ari Sawyer with Human Rights Watch. “There’s always a lag in the data that the Border Patrol publishes. But what I can say is that looking at (data from) United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there’s really a negligible amount of asylum seekers coming from South Africa.”

Sawyer is a researcher with Human Rights Watch in North America and has closely investigated human rights abuses at the U.S.-Mexico border for the past several years. She says UNHCR 2020 data shows only 51 migrants originating from South Africa in comparison to the more than 1.1 Million of all U.S.-Mexico border apprehensions reported by Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).

Abbotttweeted a follow up on Monday that 50 immigrants from South Africa and other nearby countries have been apprehended by CBP this year.

“South Africa does produce some asylum seekers. It’s just not a refugee producing country in general,” added Sawyer.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

More recently, her work has increasingly focused on investigating the implementation of policies that affect U.S. asylum seekers, including Abbott’s Operation Lonestar.

Under Operation Lonestar, Abbott has begun using DPS and the National guard to arrest migrants on state trespassing charges —something human rights groups have called illegal because immigration falls under the purview of the federal government.

“You know, the larger matter at hand here is that the Texas governor is trying to wind up fears around COVID and around this new strain of COVID to justify his anti-asylum and anti-migrant policies in South Texas,” continued Sawyer.

Abbott’s tweet went viral on Sunday, generating confusion across Twitter.

“I think it wouldn't be a far stretch of the imagination to think that perhaps he's getting confused with the Cameroonians or Haitians who are not actually coming from Africa, but from Haiti or the Caribbean,” said Sawyer about the commentary circulating online.

“But in any case, it doesn't doesn't matter where people are from. It doesn't matter if they're from South Africa,” continued Sawyer. “U.S. immigration policy and U.S. border policy limit the ability of people to migrate or seek asylum under the pretext of COVID-19.”

Last week Anne Schuchat, a former deputy director at the CDC, told a House panel probing the Trump administration's response to the pandemic that the decision to begin expelling migrants at the border under a U.S. health code “wasn’t based on a public health assessment.”

Shuchat described to the congressional investigators that then-Vice President Mike Pence directly pressured then-CDC director Robert Redfield to sign an order that would allow CBP and The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expel migrants based on health concerns —after the CDC had initially refused based on the data it had reviewed.

RELATED: Title 42 migrant expulsions had no basis in public health, says former CDC deputy director

“It's never been about COVID-19. It's always been about blocking asylum seekers and blocking migrants,” said Sawyer when asked about her investigation of the implementation of health policies to expel migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“What we have seen from Abbott is this use of of a lot of white supremacist rhetoric around migrants who are coming,” added Sawyer. “The sort of great replacement theory rhetoric that was used by the Texas Walmart shooter in El Paso. It's very dangerous rhetoric.”

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Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.