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No, the surge in Covid cases across the U.S. is not due to migrants or immigrants

As the delta variant contributes to a surge of Covid-19 cases around the United States, different voices have emerged blaming people entering the country — in particular, migrants crossing the U.S. border — for the spread.

Among the most vocal are Republican Govs. Greg Abbott in Texas and Ron DeSantis in Florida.

Abbott has repeatedly blamed undocumented immigrants for the rise in Covid-19 cases in the state and issued an executive order to limit the transport of migrants in Texas who may transmit the virus. The Justice Department called the order “dangerous and unlawful”; a judge temporarily blocked it.

DeSantis, for his part, blamed President Joe Biden for importing the virus from around the world “by having a wide open southern border.”

“You have over 100 different countries where people are pouring through,” DeSantis said Aug. 4. “Not only are they letting them through, they’re then farming them out all across our communities across this country, putting them on planes, putting them on buses.”

Iowa Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds voiced a similar view in late July, claiming that while Americans grapple with Covid restrictions, there are “people coming across the border that haven’t been vaccinated.”

Last week, while discussing the possibility of ordering the use of masks in schools, members of school boards from two counties in North Carolina accused undocumented immigrants of causing the increase in Covid-19 cases in the country, The Charlotte Observer reported.

In addition, about one-third of unvaccinated citizens believe foreigners traveling to the U.S. are the cause of the increase in coronavirus infections, according to an Axios-Ipsos survey published Aug. 3.

But there’s no evidence to support these types of accusations. While it is true that people entering the country without permission could be contributing to the overall number of Covid-19 cases — as has been the case recently in McAllen, Texas — experts believe the impact of these cases does not make a difference in the American health situation.

Not migration, but low vaccination rates

It is not migratory patterns that explain the recent outbreaks of Covid-19, but the low vaccination rates in certain states, Arthur Caplan, director of the division of medical ethics at New York University School of Medicine, told Noticias Telemundo.

“In some states, it isn’t clear that there is very much migration right now at all, although there are big outbreaks,” Caplan said. “As far as I know, the migration patterns in the past month are more north than south. That does not correlate at all.”

The 10 states with the highest rates of Covid-19 infections in the past seven days are located in the South, including in Florida and Texas, where DeSantis and Abbott are preventing schools from mandating masks amid rising Covid-19 cases among children — though some schools and districts are defying the governors and requiring masks.

Although immigrants may be contributing to the overall Covid-19 case numbers, Caplan said the increase in infections and current outbreak patterns across the country are actually in response to policies that discourage the use of masks, vaccinations and the isolation of Covid-19 patients.

Take the example of Mississippi, one of the five states with the lowest percentages of undocumented immigrants in the country, according to estimates by the Pew Research Center. It’s currently the state with the lowest vaccination rate nationally — and it ranked third in Covid-19 infections per 100,000 people last week. In Mississippi, less than 36 percent of residents are fully vaccinated, according to government data.

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that contrary to what DeSantis has said, the state’s Covid-19 surge is due to its low vaccination rate. 

“Florida is really one of the worst in the sense of the number of new cases and the number of hospitalizations,” Fauci told a CBS local newscast in Tampa, Florida. “This is fundamentally an outbreak, a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and given the relative lower level of vaccinations in Florida compared to some of the other states, you are much more vulnerable.”

For Caplan, blaming immigrants — undocumented or not — for the recent outbreaks of Covid-19 is not only wrong, but “racist.”

“There is a very long history in the United States, sadly, of blaming recent immigrants,” Caplan said. “They are always trying to blame outsiders for ‘diseases,’ and there isn’t any evidence, particularly right now, when we know why there are big outbreaks in the South.”

“I don’t see anything except racism and bigotry behind pointing the finger at immigrants,” Caplan added. 

William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, recently told PolitiFact that given the extensive transmission already in the U.S., “the immigration contribution is akin to pouring a bucket of water into a swimming pool.”

“It’s hard to measure and pretty trivial,” Schaffner said.

The borders are not open

Another false claim that’s been repeated around Covid-19 is that the country’s borders are wide open and anyone can enter, just as DeSantis put it. That is not the case.

In March 2020, the U.S. closed its land borders with Mexico and Canada to nonessential travel such as tourism. The measure has been extended on a monthly basis since then.

In addition, since the end of January, federal health authorities have required a negative Covid-19 test for international travelers, including citizens and residents, who arrive in the United States by air.

On the southern border, U.S. Border Patrol has expelled 750,000 people who have crossed into the U.S., even those seeking asylum, under a public health order, known as Title 42, first put in effect by former President Donald Trump and now maintained by the Biden administration.

On July 30, the U.S. resumed fast-track deportation flights of migrant families that recently arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border, taking them to Central America or southern Mexico.

The number of people currently arriving at the southern border is the highest in decades. Border Patrol detained nearly 180,000 migrants in June, the highest number since March 2000.

The Biden administration has expelled fewer people who have migrated to the U.S. than the Trump administration: While in December, 85 percent of those who were detained were expelled from the country, in June that figure was 58 percent, the lowest since the Covid-19 pandemic began. 

But this does not mean all the people who managed to stay continue their way into the country. Of the 75,000 immigrants without legal status detained in June who were not expelled, just over half remain in the custody of federal or local authorities; some are transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and others end up under police or sheriff custody, as they had pending matters with the justice system.

The rest are released with the order to appear before an immigration court months later.

A version of this story was first published in Noticias Telemundo.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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