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COVID-19 at the border

Overcrowded conditions make containment, testing impossible

Newly admitted migrants wait at a respite center in Del Rio, Texas, in June. Associated Press/Photo by Eric Gay

COVID-19 at the border

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) deals with more than 100,000 illegal or inadmissible migrants per month at the southern border—nearly 213,000 in July, a record month. Testing all of those people for COVID-19 just isn’t feasible, the agency says.

Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz told NBC News earlier this month that testing all migrants who enter custody would create even more severe bottlenecks in the overwhelmed system. Instead, CBP tests people when it releases them—either for deportation to their home country or for detention by another agency such as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It also tests those who show COVID-19 symptoms.

According to documents obtained by NBC, 18 percent of migrants leaving U.S. custody had tested positive in late July or early August. The U.S. government quarantines those who test positive, causing delays in their removal or transfer. The White House has said CBP provides personal protective equipment to everyone they apprehend and requires the migrants to wear masks at all times.

The number of unaccompanied minors who crossed the border in July—nearly 19,000—also set a new record. The Biden administration opened emergency shelters to care for arriving unaccompanied children earlier this year. The hurry to open and staff the facilities led to the hiring of contractors with no experience caring for children and a lack of enforcing standards of care. In July, whistleblowers reported they were told to downplay an outbreak of COVID-19 among minors in the crowded Fort Bliss, Texas, shelter.

Because migrants are not tested on arrival, it’s unclear how much they have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. But as the immigration system continues to be overcrowded, the government is struggling to contain the virus among migrants. The Biden administration submitted a court filing on Aug. 2 that said, “The United States is currently encountering record numbers of noncitizens” at the border and “significantly increased rates of noncitizens testing positive for COVID-19.”

Dr. Ivan Melendez is the health authority in Hidalgo County, Texas. At a news conference in the first week of August, he said that migrants were “part of the problem,” but he emphasized they do not have higher infection rates than the general population. McAllen, Texas, officials said about 8 percent of migrants released there from CBP custody since February have tested positive for COVID-19. The rate recently increased to more than 16 percent, similar to that of the local population.

The administration reportedly plans to vaccinate migrants encountered at the border unless they are being expelled for public health reasons under a federal rule known as Title 42. Ali Noorani, director of the National Immigration Forum, called this a positive step. “Moving forward, the administration should expand vaccine access to migrants expelled under Title 42,” he said. “Doing so will benefit communities on both sides of the border and brings us closer to reopening the border to more trade, tourism and legal immigration.” Noorani would also like to see the administration work with border communities, faith groups, and nonprofits to ensure that asylum-seekers are properly tested and quarantined, if necessary.

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.



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