US Deportations Are Exporting COVID-19 to Nations Unprepared for a Pandemic

April 28, 2020

On April 22nd, President Trump signed an Executive Order putting a 60-day halt on the issuance of new green cards to immigrants admissible for permanent residency in the United States. This measure, coming on the back of other government measures restricting legal immigration, ostensibly seeks to protect the US from imported cases of COVID-19. But while Trump endeavors to block nearly all immigration into the US, his administration has been exporting the virus to countries that have extremely limited capacity and resources to deal with pandemics.

As the coronavirus crisis has unfolded, the Trump administration has continued deportation flights of undocumented migrants to Central America and the Caribbean, all while openly threatening countries that push back. The results are tragic and predictable: there are now multiple instances of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases to countries with under-resourced public health care systems that are already strained by the pandemic. In doing so, the Trump administration is not just putting the lives of immigrants and Latin Americans at risk, but those of people around the world.

On March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order invoking authority under a 1944 law to restrict travel from Mexico and Canada. The order states the need for 

the movement of all such aliens to the country from which they entered the United States, or their country of origin, or another location as practicable, as rapidly as possible, with as little time spent in congregate settings as practicable under the circumstances. The faster a covered alien is returned … the lower the risk the alien poses of introducing, transmitting, or spreading COVID–19 into [Ports of Entry], Border Patrol stations, other congregate settings, and the interior.

Part of the order’s justification was that immigrant detention centers, notorious for deplorable hygiene and sanitation conditions, are ill-equipped for a quarantine scenario. Nationwide, more than 375 ICE detainees, and numerous staff, have tested positive for COVID-19 despite low testing rates. New research suggests that, at current detention levels, 72% of ICE detainees will have COVID-19 by day 90 in an optimistic scenario; in a pessimistic scenario, it’s nearly 100%. Despite this, ICE has only slowed down, not ended, raids to round up new detainees.

As a result of the CDC’s order, immigrants and asylum seekers crossing the Mexican border into the US are now being returned to Mexico in an average of just 96 minutes, without testing and without recognition of their due process or other rights under the US Constitution. Even with total border crossings into the US down significantly, over 10,000 immigrants were expelled back to Mexico in the weeks following the order. Taken together with administration policy before the outbreak, it seems clear that the CDC order is intended to further undermine the rights of asylum seekers. Chris Boian, a spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, commented that though the coronavirus pandemic “may warrant extraordinary measures at borders, expulsion of asylum seekers resulting in refoulement should not be among them.”

But the Trump administration hasn’t just been turning away new immigrants; it is continuing to deport detainees back to Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) reported 2,985 deportations in the first 11 days of April, a substantial decline from prior numbers but still deeply troubling given the global pandemic.

Though ICE is notoriously secretive about its operations, a review of public flight data shows that Swift Air, one of ICE’s major subcontractors for deportation flights, has continued to fly regularly from international airports near major ICE detainment centers to airports throughout Latin America, with the majority of flights headed to three national airports in Northern Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), even amid a dramatic decline in global air travel. Though some of Swift’s air traffic may be private flights unrelated to deportation, 43 percent of ICE deportees were returned to Northern Central America in 2019, making up the vast majority of deportations when excluding Mexico’s 47 percent (deportations to Mexico occur over ground more often than by flight). 

As deportations have continued, there are now multiple confirmed cases of the US deporting immigrants with active COVID-19 cases. In one instance, an immigrant, unaware he had contracted the virus, was deported from Houston to Mexico, leading to the infection of 13 others in a Nuevo Laredo shelter just south of the US-Mexican border. Ironically, the CDC order claimed “Medical experts believe that community transmission and spread of COVID–19 at asylum camps and shelters along the US border is inevitable, once community transmission begins in Mexico”; the order itself has contributed to this exact outcome. The Mexican government is now making the same mistake under US pressure, clearing its migrant shelters and sending immigrants and refugees back to Central America.

In Haiti, three deportees have reportedly tested positive for COVID-19, prompting 27 members of the US Congress and 164 human rights organizations to send letters asking the Trump administration to halt deportations to the beleaguered nation, and some Haitian scientists have asked the same. In fact, Haitian citizens legally visiting the US are having a harder time returning to Haiti than deportees are, as deportees aren’t being properly tested first. In Guatemala, the public health ministry has reported at least 99 people infected with COVID-19 who have been deported from the US on various flights, nearly one-fifth of all the country’s known cases. Though there are contradictory reports, Guatemala’s health minister claims that on one of these flights, the majority of deportees aboard were sick.

That flight led the Guatemalan government to temporarily suspend incoming deportation flights on March 17, and to request that the US government reform deportation protocols by testing deportees beforehand and limiting flights to 25 deportees each in order to allow for distancing. El Salvador joined in temporarily suspending deportation flights, while flights had supposedly already been stopped in Honduras due to general flight restrictions. The US did not comply with Guatemala’s requests, but Guatemala still lifted its suspension two days later and allowed deportation flights to resume — the same day the US government announced it would continue aid to Northern Central America. ICE claimed to be implementing some precautions, but some experts said they were woefully inadequate

After the Trump administration continued to send back deportees with COVID-19, the Guatemalan government suspended flights again on April 16 in what it described as a “consensual decision” with the US; the US also sent a CDC team to investigate. Only on April 24 did ICE announce it would begin testing some deportees, several months after the outbreak had been confirmed in the US. Nevertheless, Swift Air flights to Northern Central America seem to have continued even when these governments had said they were suspending them. Swift flights from ICE hubs in the US to all three nations have proceeded in the several days leading up to publication of this post.

This is due, no doubt, in part to US pressure. When Guatemala raised concerns early on, Trump responded with a memo on April 10, threatening to impose visa sanctions against any country that “denies or unreasonably delays the acceptance of aliens who are … subjects … of that country after being asked to accept those aliens” in a way that “imped[es] operations of the Department of Homeland Security necessary to respond to the ongoing pandemic …” (Though visa sanctions aiming to pressure countries on immigration policy had been imposed just twice in the quarter century between the end of the Cold War and Donald Trump’s election, Trump has used them against a total of eight different countries so far.)

Some of the countries that Trump has pressured into accepting deportees despite the risk of COVID-19 may be some of the least prepared nations in the entire Western Hemisphere to manage a pandemic. Guatemala, Haiti, and Honduras all have some of the lowest testing rates in Latin America, meaning deportations may well have already contributed to an undetected spread of COVID-19. These nations also rank at the very bottom for hospital beds and medical professionals per capita. 

While the Trump administration justifies these draconian measures as necessary to protect the US from disease, the danger is obvious: the continued spread of the pandemic to places unprepared to manage it will further imperil the region, the US included. This is especially the case when ICE has used the same planes to deport immigrants and to bring US citizens back.

The mass deportation of immigrants was cruel and unnecessary long before COVID-19 struck, but in the midst of an active pandemic, the policy is not just unjust, it is also a threat to global health. As congressional leaders prepare the next COVID-19-related legislative package, legislators should support a moratorium on deportations and the release of nonviolent detainees in ICE facilities so long as the pandemic rages.

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