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These fact checks of North Carolina politics are a collaboration between PolitiFact and WRAL. You can hear them Wednesdays on WFAE's Morning Edition.

Fact Check: NC School Board Members False In Claiming Illegal Immigration Is Behind Rise In COVID

In this week's fact check of North Carolina politics, we’re looking at claims made by two Charlotte-area school board members tying the rise in COVID-19 cases to illegal immigration at the southern border.

During a Union County school board meeting on Aug. 3, board member Gary Sides said immigrants coming in the country illegally are like a “super spreader event.” A day earlier, Cabarrus County school board member Tim Furr said COVID-19 cases would continue to rise until the government stopped letting in “illegal aliens by the thousands coming across that border without masks with COVID.” Sides and Furr made those claims during discussions on COVID-19 school safety measures for this fall.

Paul Specht of WRAL joins us to assess those claims.

Photo courtesy of Paul Specht

Marshall Terry: Paul, is it true what sides and first said about immigrants being to blame for a spike in COVID-19 cases?

Paul Specht: No, we couldn't find evidence to support that claim that they're largely driving the rise in COVID cases. We look at available data from the CDC and obviously we look at Border Patrol reports, too. And then what experts around the country are saying — medical experts — what they're seeing in hospitals. And we didn't find anything to support that theory.

Terry: Is there any data to show that the rise in cases in North Carolina has anything to do with immigrants? Does the state health department track if immigrants are among new cases of COVID-19?

Specht: No, it doesn't. I'm glad you brought that up. That's part of the reason this claim is hard to prove. To back up a bit, with our PolitiFact process, the burden of proof is always on whoever makes a claim. So a politician or someone on social media — it is incumbent on them to prove that their claim is true. And in this case, North Carolina does not track whether or not people who test positive for COVID are U.S. citizens or not or whether they just came across the border. So that information is not available.

Terry: Are immigrants at the border screened for COVID-19?

Specht: The ones who are encountering Border Patrol agents are screened, according to the Customs and Border Protection Agency. A lot of news organizations have asked them about this. We found an email that they sent to The Washington Post that says if anyone in their custody exhibits signs of illness, they're referred to local health clinics and screened. And often, if they're allowed to stay, they're then released into the custody of local nonprofits and things like that. They would be in charge of quarantining and making sure that they get the health care that they need.

Terry: And, of course, you said those are just among the immigrants that are actually encountered by Border Patrol. But we can assume that there are immigrants who are not encountered by Border Patrol.

Specht: Right. And that's an issue here. There's a lot we don't know. I mentioned that we don't know how many of the people taking tests in North Carolina are migrants or U.S. citizens. And we don't know in general — ever — how many people are crossing the border, because we can only track the people we encounter, right? And I'm using the collective "we" here as a country. But sure, there will be people who slip through or cross the border who evade U.S. Border Patrol and other authorities. And it's hard to count those people if we don't see them cross.

Terry: Sides, the Union County school board member, also made the claim that the southern border is "basically open." Is that true?

Specht: That's not true. One big reason it's not true is because former President Trump enacted a law called Title 42 that basically enables the U.S. government to turn away anyone from trying to enter our country from a country that has an outbreak. It's sort of a quarantine-type law. And that law has been in place since last year. And President Biden has kept it in place, much to the chagrin of even some of his fans or frequent allies, meaning immigration activists and people like that.

We're turning away many, many people who come to the border under this Title 42. And in fact, just in June alone, they turned away over 100,000 people — or they turned people away over 100,000 times. And I correct myself because Border Patrol does not track people; they track encounters. So it's possible a lot of these people who try to come through ports of entry or who are caught outside the ports of entry by Border Patrol are coming, being rejected and then coming back again. And so experts have speculated that's one reason that the numbers might be so high.

Terry: Did you reach out to these two school board members about what they said?

Specht: We did and never heard back.

Terry: So how did you rate these claims by Gary Sides and Tim Furr?

Specht: We rated it false. There's just not enough evidence here to support their claim, and experts tell us again and again that it's the delta variant in the unvaccinated that is causing this spike in COVID cases. There's just not the data available to track how many of these unvaccinated people are migrants and how many are U.S. citizens.

But experts say that if there were large outbreaks caused by migrants, we'd see some patterns across U.S. border cities and things like that, that we're just not seeing. The outbreaks are everywhere. That's a big reason we rated this false.

Terry: All right, Paul, thank you.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.