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VERIFY: Claim that 50% of immigrants have COVID-19 isn't based on actual testing data

Claims of high rates of COVID-19 among undocumented immigrants have gone viral. We found out they're not based on testing data, just hunches.

WASHINGTON — Some headlines and blogs have latched on to the idea that there is a dangerous surge of undocumented immigrants entering the United States from the southern border. A Washington Post data analysis recently found this to be untrue.

Nevertheless, many claims about immigration have gone viral on social media lately. A popular topic has become the amount of immigrants who have tested positive for COVID-19.

QUESTION:

Is it true that "up to 50% of immigrants crossing the border illegally have COVID-19?"

ANSWER:

This statistic is misleading. It is not based on testing data, but is based on estimates from a group of border sheriffs. FEMA says they have seen a positivity rate less than 6%.

SOURCES:

  • Acting FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton
  • National Sheriffs' Association
  • Department of Homeland Security

PROCESS:

A common claim among social media posts and headlines is that 50% of people crossing the border illegally have tested positive for COVID-19. This number originated with a draft of a border security resolution published by the National Sheriffs' Association (NSA). The full association is expected to vote on this resolution in June.

In a section detailing the strain COVID-19 has caused on border communities, the NSA says, "Estimates are that between 5% and 50% of the persons crossing without documentation are COVID positive." This claim has caught the most media attention out of the rest of the resolution.

We reached out to the NSA to ask where these numbers originated, and a spokesperson told us they are not based on hard numbers. 

Via email, a spokesperson told our Verify team that "this is an estimate from border sheriffs from experiences in their community...I don't think anyone is counting specifically."

Alternatively, in a March 16th House Appropriations Subcommittee on the Department of Homeland Security hearing, Acting FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton told representatives that FEMA has seen "less than 6% positive right now coming across the border." 

RELATED: VERIFY: No, the stimulus checks won't be going to undocumented immigrants

According to testing data from Johns Hopkins University, the percent positivity of COVID-19 tests in the border states Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas on March 16th were respectively 2.7%, 1.9%, 2.1% and 7.2%.

We asked the Department of Homeland Security for any data from their COVID-19 testing at the border and they did not provide any. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas was pressed for data several times in a March 17 House Homeland Security committee hearing. He also did not provide any data but said migrants are being tested and those who test positive are quarantined.