Three Texans in Congress exposed to COVID-19 while at detention center

Dilley, TX August 23, 2019: The entrance for the privately-run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) South Texas Family Residential Facility outside Dilley. Bob Daemmrich for The Texas Tribune

WASHINGTON – Three Texas members of Congress were potentially exposed to COVID-19 while touring a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility in south Texas, but all have tested negative for the virus.

A Trump administration official notified congressional staffers on Friday that while touring an ICE facility in Dilley, Texas, Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio, Henry Cuellar of Laredo and Sylvia R. Garcia of Houston were exposed to an ICE staffer who tested positive for the virus three days later.

"I was just informed that one of our ICE employees who met Mr. Castro, Ms. Garcia, and Mr. Cuellar at the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, TX on Monday, June 22, 2020 tested positive for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)," ICE official Sean Hackbarth wrote to a Congressional Hispanic Caucus staffer.

"While the employee wore a mask for the entire duration of the visit and maintained the minimum social distancing of six feet, out of an abundance of caution, I'm providing notification to you can share it with the appropriate member offices and Hill personnel."

Hackbarth is a liaison between ICE and members of Congress.

The staffer at issue tested positive on Thursday and walked around with the members, but did not speak or have direct contact with them, according to Hackbarth.

An ICE spokesperson confirmed that report.

"U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) notified Members of Congress, who recently visited the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas, that an ICE employee tested positive for COVID-19," said Paige D. Hughes, an ICE spokesperson, said in a statement. "The Congressional delegation visited the facility on Monday, June 22, and ICE was notified of the employee’s positive results on Thursday, June 25."

"As is standard practice at the facility, the employees and the touring delegation all wore appropriate masks and maintained the minimum social distance of six feet. ICE made the notification out of an abundance of caution, since the employee who tested positive assisted on the tour," she added. "The employee is quarantining at home. To date, 2 employees at STFRC have tested positive for COVID-19."

Garcia expressed frustration in a Tribune interview.

"We were on a [congressional delegation] to check to see what protocols were doing to protect the detainees," said Garcia. "ICE was trying to convince us there was nothing to worry about, that there was no mass contagion, and they’re following social distancing."

Garcia stressed that her status as a member of Congress allows her better health care options than the detainees.

"We’re members of Congress," she added. "We have insurance. We are going to be able to get tested immediately."

All three members came up negative in their COVID-19 test. Garcia recently came out of another round of quarantine after she was exposed to a family member with the virus. She tested negative on that incident.

Castro is the chairman of the CHC.

On another front, Republican U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert of Tyler told CNN that he refuses to wear mask because he does not have the virus.

"I don't have the coronavirus, turns out as of yesterday I've never had it," he said on Friday. "But if I get it, you'll never see me without a mask."

When pressed on the fact that asymptomatic carries can unknowingly transmit the virus , Gohmert insisted that he is frequently tested.

“I keep being tested and I don’t have it,” he said. “So I’m not afraid of you, but if I get it I’ll wear a mask.”