Week 28: U.S. exports pandemic via deportations

Immigration news, in context.

This is the twenty-eighth edition of BORDER/LINES, a weekly newsletter by Felipe De La Hoz and Gaby Del Valle designed to get you up to speed on the big developments in immigration policy. Reach out with feedback, suggestions, tips, and ideas at BorderLines.News@protonmail.ch.

Recently, we rolled out a way for you to support the work we do every week to untangle these complex concepts. If you find what we do useful, you can help us keep it going and keep improving by becoming a backer. In addition to the weekly newsletter, you will receive additional sections, including Q&As with experts and more detailed policy analyses. This week, we explained the FIRST Act, a bill that seeks to reduce the number of people in ICE custody during times of “national emergency related to communicable disease.”

This week’s edition:

  • In The Big Picture, we explain the ongoing tug-of-war over continuing to deport migrants to Central America.

  • In Under the Radar, we dig into concerns that ICE’s coronavirus tally may be inaccurate and a new report explaining how newly arrived refugees are being affected by the pandemic.

  • In Next Destinationwe discuss whether the agency that oversees shelters for unaccompanied migrant children is shifting to an enforcement-driven model, as well as the looming threat of layoffs for workers on H-1B visas.

The Big Picture

The news: Guatemala has moved to again suspend deportations of its citizens from the United States after a top health official announces that dozens of recent deportees have tested positive for the coronavirus. Its policy on accepting deportees has shifted back and forth in recent weeks as the threat of the pandemic looms while the U.S. threatens consequences for limiting deportations.

What’s happening?

Sources within the Guatemalan government told reporters yesterday that up to 44 different people on an April 13 deportation flight had tested positive for the virus. This is in addition to the numerous other infected deportees that Guatemalan Health Minister Hugo Monroy has said were flown to the country, though he’s been somewhat erratic in describing the number. At one point, he said 50 to 70 percent of all deportees had tested positive, before amending that to say 75 percent of passengers had been sick in a single flight. The health minister has contradicted the president’s office, which only acknowledged a single-digit number of sick deportees.

Putting together the numbers that Monroy and other officials have publicly announced yields about 70 COVID-19-positive deportees, which would account for about a third of all of Guatemala’s confirmed cases and make the U.S. one of the primary contributors to its infection rate. The U.S.’s insistence on continuing deportations during a global pandemic even as it confirmed cases among its detainee population and failed to test outgoing deportees always carried the risk of making it a global disease vector, as our Gaby Del Valle and Jack Herrera wrote in the Nation last month.

Now, the U.S. has sent a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to supposedly verify the number of deportees that have tested positive for the coronavirus (some have noted the irony in the Trump administration springing into action to refute claims of exporting the virus, while dragging its feet in rolling out widespread testing in domestic detention facilities). While the U.S. is presumably trying to lower the confirmed count of cases it’s sent abroad, Guatemala is reportedly retesting deportees who initially tested negative, under the suspicion that the count might be higher. It has also again suspended the arrival of new deportation flights, reversing course from an earlier decision (more on that in the next section).

There don’t appear to be reports of other countries confirming COVID-19 among deportees, but obviously it’s very unlikely that Guatemala received dozens of sick deportees while others received zero. Deportations to other countries have continued, such as to Haiti, which has expressed concern that its relatively limited coronavirus outbreak could be deeply exacerbated by deportation flights. ICE detainees are reportedly only superficially screened for symptoms but not tested before being put on planes. 

As we reported in March, ICE deportation flights are also being used to transport U.S. citizens and residents back to the country, sometimes just mere hours after they’ve touched down. If these flights are indeed full of COVID-19-positive people, it’s not a stretch to say that putting a bunch of other, potentially non-infected people into the same metal tube right away is a shortsighted idea, even if the plane gets cleaned.

How we got here

In early March, the governments of some Central American countries began placing limits on deportation flights — though not, initially, from the United States. The Honduran government initially suspended deportation flights from Mexico, but allowed deportations by bus from Mexico and deportation flights from the U.S. to continue. Meanwhile in El Salvador, president Nayib Bukele declared a national quarantine and imposed a 30-day quarantine period on all Salvadorans arriving from abroad. The following week, Guatemala announced it would temporarily stop accepting deportees from the U.S., at least until the country could establish protocols to deal with the virus. The ban on deportations was lifted less than two days later. By that point, El Salvador claimed it wasn’t accepting deportees from the U.S. at all, while the Honduran government said it had closed its airports to international traffic, including deportation flights, according to Reuters.

Deportation flights continued despite these measures. As we reported last month, Honduras continued accepting deportation flights even though its airports were technically closed — and the U.S. government used the same planes that had carried deportees hours earlier to evacuate Americans attempting to leave in the Central American country.

What influenced these countries’ decision to continue accepting deportees despite claiming they would stop? For one, President Trump threatened to impose visa sanctions on any country that doesn’t accept deportees. The April 10 executive order instructs the DHS secretary to “notify the Secretary of State … if any government of a foreign country denies or unreasonably delays the acceptance of aliens who are citizens, subjects, nationals, or residents of that country after being asked to accept those aliens.” The subtext was clear: Central American countries would be punished for attempting to slow or halt deportations during the pandemic.

ICE, for its part, claims it screens all immigrants for symptoms prior to boarding them on deportation flights. The agency says it takes the temperature of all passengers and doesn’t deport anyone with a fever. But the virus is often spread by asymptomatic carriers, and its long incubation period means a presumably healthy person could board a deportation flight only to begin showing symptoms a few days later.

The U.S. isn’t just continuing deportations — it’s also turning away migrants who present at the southern border. These aren’t technically “deportations,” since the migrants are never taken into custody or processed in the U.S. Instead, the government is “expelling” Central American migrants into Mexico, leaving Mexican authorities responsible for returning them to their home countries. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, the Mexican government is in some cases apprehending migrants along its northern border, transporting them to its southern border, and ultimately dropping them off in Guatemala — even if they aren’t Guatemalan. Honduran and Salvadoran migrants transported to Guatemala in this way are at risk of being apprehended and detained by Guatemalan authorities.

The emphasis on continuing deportations and strong-arming countries into accepting deportees may be rooted in case law. In Zadvydas v. Davis, the Supreme Court ruled that immigration authorities can’t indefinitely detain immigrants who have been issued final orders of removal to countries that aren’t accepting repatriations. Instead, non-citizen’s deportation needs to occur within a 90-day “removal period.” If it doesn’t, they have to be released.

What’s next?

Even if Minister Monroy is exaggerating the number of deportees who have tested positive, it’s clear that U.S. deportations will have significantly contributed to the outbreak in Guatemala. Despite that, the common-sense public health measure of suspending these deportations probably won’t last in the face of what are sure to be renewed U.S. retaliatory measures and threats. At least we can have some confidence that the CDC medical team dispatched to Guatemala will do its job impartially, and confirm whether or not the inflow has been as drastic as described. Even if it is, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. will shift its practices.

Soon, we’ll probably also start seeing reports of deportees testing positive for COVID-19 in other countries, perhaps dozens at a time. Pursuant to a CDC order, U.S. immigration officials have been detaining migrants arriving at the southern border and deporting them with no further process, even if they intended to claim asylum. This is supposedly to prevent the spread of the pandemic, as these migrants have traveled by land in “congregate settings” where they may have been exposed. By the CDC’s own logic, then, the government is sending people with a high infection risk to countries around the world with no screening. Deportations also continue from coronavirus hotspots like the surroundings of New York and Louisiana.

This also raises the question of testing in ICE detention. So far, ICE has acknowledged a total of 100 positive cases among detainees nationwide, a figure that doesn’t make much sense if 70 infected people were deported to Guatemala in the past month. Testing in detention centers remains low, but a high incidence of deported individuals being positive for the coronavirus may force the administration to acknowledge the problem is much more widespread than it has acknowledged.

Under the Radar

ICE hasn’t been disclosing whether its contractors have coronavirus

ICE’s official tally of how many of its employees have tested positive for coronavirus apparently excludes one group: employees of the private companies that own and operate some of the agency’s detention facilities. A federal judge in Miami just required the agency to disclose how many employees of third-party contractors in three detention centers have tested positive for the virus — which the agency doesn’t appear to have been keeping track of, or at least hasn’t disclosed.

The order was part of a lawsuit demanding the release of certain detainees held in three south Florida facilities. It’s part of a flurry of lawsuits filed across the country arguing the same thing: Immigrants detained by ICE are at particular risk of contracting the novel coronavirus because they can’t practice social distancing, lack adequate access to cleaning supplies and hygienic products like soap and hand sanitizer, and are regularly exposed to guards and other staff who must commute to and from work every day. According to ICE’s own count, there are 100 confirmed coronavirus cases among detainees, 25 cases among ICE employees at detention centers, and 81 among ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities. That’s certainly an under-count.

Recently, Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Pramila Jayapal introduced a bill, the Federal Immigrant Release for Safety and Security Together Act, that would release thousands of immigrants in ICE custody whenever there’s a “national emergency related to communicable disease.” Though it’s unlikely to become law, the bill is premised on the same logic as the lawsuits: the very nature of detention makes it difficult to prevent the transmission of communicable disease.

Read more:

  • ICE refuses to say if its contractors have COVID-19. A federal judge just ordered them to - The Miami Herald

  • B/L Premium — The FIRST Act - BORDER/LINES

  • Federal courts order releases of vulnerable detainees while asylum seekers are turned away - BORDER/LINES

Recent refugees struggling during the pandemic

Despite the fact that the U.S. refugee program has been curtailed, refugees and Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) holders — Iraqi and Afghan nationals who assisted the U.S. government or military in their home countries — have continued to arrive in the United States. Now, their attempts to restart their lives in a new nation have been hamstrung by the public health crisis. Many have either not been able to find jobs or lost the jobs that they had gotten, while having a total unfamiliarity with the systems that exist to help them. One recent SIV recipient was enrolled in Medicaid but didn’t know how to use it or where to go to get medical assistance. A recent Congolese arrival worried about paying the rent once his initial refugee assistance ran out.

The refugee resettlement agencies and their local affiliates have been struggling to adapt. When once they would have been able to do hands-on orientation — taking recent refugees to the bus stop and showing them how to get around, driving them to the clinic — that has been made impossible by the contagion. Meanwhile, Congress and the administration have not come to the rescue, leaving it unclear in the recently-passed CARES Act whether refugees qualify for the $1,200 in pandemic assistance, and providing an allocation for a refugee account without specifying whether any of the funds are to be used domestically.

Read more:

  • A New Home in a Country Shuttered by a Pandemic - The New Republic, by our Felipe De La Hoz

Next Destination

Will the Office of Refugee Resettlement shift to immigration enforcement?

While Customs and Border Protection turns unaccompanied migrant children — and all other inadmissible migrants — away at the border and government shelters for migrant kids receive fewer and fewer referrals, some in the White House are hard at work turning the Office of Refugee Resettlement into an immigration enforcement agency, Politico reports. ORR, The agency, a component of the Department of Health and Human Services, oversees the network of shelters for unaccompanied migrant children and works to reunite them with sponsors in the U.S. Typically, children who arrive at the border alone are taken into Border Patrol custody, where can be held for up to 72 hours, before being transferred to an ORR shelter. But Politico reports that ORR is trying to “delay” transferring children to shelters, which would keep them in Border Patrol custody for longer.

Border Patrol stations aren’t designed to detain people for long periods of time. Last summer, thousands of migrant children were held for days — or sometimes even weeks — in squalid facilities that lacked showers. Several facilities experienced flu outbreaks.

The agency is also considering reinstating a policy requiring all adults in households applying to sponsor unaccompanied children — typically relatives or family friends of the child — to be fingerprinted. When the policy was in effect, it slowed down the reunification process, causing some children to be held in government shelters for months. Some in the White House, including Stephen Miller, also want to stop releasing migrant children to undocumented immigrants, claiming it “rewards” unauthorized migration.

It’s unclear whether these policies will change, or when. The pandemic may present an opportunity to implement these changes with little initial effect, thanks to the near-shutdown of the border for unauthorized immigrants.

Read more:

  • Stephen Miller’s hard-line policies on refugee families make a comeback at HHS - Politico

  • The US is swiftly removing migrant children due to new coronavirus restrictions - CNN

  • The horrifying conditions facing kids in border detention, explained - Vox

As layoffs continue, H-1B visa workers’ status in the country is in jeopardy

More than 22 million people have been laid off in the U.S. since mid-March, as social distancing measures intended to slow transmission of the virus affect nearly every sector of the economy. For workers whose ability to stay in the country is tied to their employment status, a layoff can be particularly devastating. As CQ Roll Call’s Tanvi Misra reported this week, workers on H-1B specialty visas are particularly susceptible to violating the terms of their visas through no fault of their own. 

Strict guidelines require laid-off workers to find new employers almost immediately, even as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services — the agency that processes visa and other immigration applications — suspends many of its operations and delays visa-related processes. They are also ineligible for unemployment protections despite being U.S. taxpayers laid off from U.S. jobs. Many are facing the difficult prospect of having to leave the United States even if they have maintained lawful status during their entire time in the country thus far.

Read more:

  • H-1B workers lose jobs, legal status amid pandemic -  CQ Roll Call

  • At Least 22 Million Americans Are Out Of A Job — And We Haven’t Hit Bottom - Five Thirty Eight