How Right-Wingers Used A Single Whataburger Meal To Blame Immigrants For COVID

A sign for a 24 hour Whataburger is seen in Phoenix Arizona. (Photo by Epics/Getty Images)
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August 6, 2021 8:00 a.m.

In a filing in federal court Monday, the state of Texas argued that Gov. Greg Abbott (R) was justified in ordering state troopers to pull over anyone they thought was driving undocumented immigrants — because of one family’s meal at a Whataburger in South Texas. 

Immigrant families, the state said, posed a deadly threat to Texans. 

“Consider, for example, a family of migrants released in La Joya, Texas,” lawyers for the state wrote. “The family went to a public restaurant and began ‘coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths.’” The family in question told police they had COVID-19, the filing noted.

The federal judge handling the case, a Bush appointee, wasn’t convinced. On Wednesday, she temporarily paused Abbott’s order, saying that it was the governor’s order, not immigrants, that risked “exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.” 

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The fury over the Whataburger meal conveniently ignores some key issues in Texas, including that localities are still forbidden by the governor from instituting mask mandates, and that Texas’ vaccination rate lags behind the rest of the country. As the Washington Post reported recently, “what the hardest-hit states do have in common is relatively low vaccination rates,” not large numbers of new arrivals.

Nonetheless, that singular meal has now become a national anti-immigrant talking point. 

On Thursday, the columnist Laura Hollis cited the Whataburger meal in a column describing immigration as “a government-sponsored invasion” and “an existential threat.” 

Since last Tuesday, the meal has been mentioned more than a dozen times on Fox News, including on Tucker Carlson’s program, seen by millions of viewers. 

“The Biden administration is still shuttling foreign nationals throughout our country without checking to see if they’ve been vaccinated against COVID,” Carlson said, introducing the story. “Some of them carry it.”

Separately on Fox News, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) and Abbott himself have all addressed the Whataburger scare.

“That’s exactly why I issued this executive order,” Abbott said after describing the La Joya case. 

Local health officials in the area have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to push back against the anti-immigrant rhetoric. 

“They’re not posing more of a danger than myself, I’ve been in seven COVID units today,” Ivan Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said at a press conference Thursday, stressing that the COVID-19 positivity rate among recent immigrants was roughly the same as among Texans overall. 

Melendez added: “Is this the pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated.” 

‘Public Health Announcement’

The story starts at the U.S.-Mexico border, where for several years, a group called Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley has worked with the federal government and local officials to provide aid and temporary shelter to immigrants and asylum seekers after they are released from government custody. 

Recently, CCRGV has rented out hotels in South Texas to help accommodate the growing number of immigrants and asylum seekers released by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, including those who test positive for COVID-19

Those quarantining with COVID-19 are supposed to stay in their hotel rooms. But in an “isolated case,” CCRGV said last week, one family left their room. 

Here, the local police department made the isolated case a national story: In a blaring Facebook post last Monday they deemed a “public health announcement,” the La Joya Police Department said one of their officers had been flagged down by someone who’d entered a Whataburger and observed a family “coughing and sneezing without covering their mouths” and “not wearing face masks.” 

The Facebook post said that the family had told the officer that they’d been apprehended by Border Patrol recently “and were released because they were sick with Covid-19.” (Spokespeople for CBP did not confirm that detail to TPM.) Police officers visited the hotel where the family was staying, paid for by CCRGV, and “observed that a group of 20 to 30 people staying at the hotel were out and about the majority with out face masks,” the post said. 

CCRGV took action, even stationing a security guard in the hotel “so that they will remind the families to remain inside.” 

But the story went viral nonetheless: With right-wing politicians across the country trying to deflect attention from the ongoing public health failures of the most recent spike in COVID-19, immigrants were a perfect scapegoat

On July 28, two days after the infamous meal, the governor of Texas signed his executive order — since paused by a judge — instructing state troopers to stop any vehicles they believed were carrying undocumented immigrants. The order asserted that “busloads of migrants, an unknown number of whom are infected with COVID-19, are being transported to communities across the state of Texas, exposing Texans to the spread of COVID-19, as has already been reported in cities like La Joya, among others.” 

In fact, in Hidalgo County, home to La Joya, recent immigrants aren’t sicker than U.S. residents.

“The positivity rate in the migrants that are coming in are almost exactly the positivity rates here,” Melendez, the Hidalgo County health authority, said at Thursday’s press conference. 

And, largely left unsaid in the La Joya story: Texans who aren’t undocumented immigrants — and therefore, who aren’t the targets of a right-wing talking point — have largely been allowed to freely spread the virus, without any requirements to wear masks or be vaccinated. 

At a press conference last Monday focused on the Whataburger incident, La Joya Police Sergeant Manuel Casas was asked whether members of the public should call the police if they saw “any member of society” — not just immigrants — exhibiting signs of COVID-19. 

“We don’t necessarily–” Casas began before pausing. “That’s something that we won’t necessarily be focusing on.”

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