The Department of Homeland Security put migrants, staff, and border communities at greater risk of COVID-19 infection by failing to adequately screen migrants for the coronavirus, a government watchdog said in a newly released report.
“DHS leadership must commit to strengthening these COVID-19 preventative measures. Without stronger measures in place, DHS is putting its workforce, support staff, communities, and migrants at greater risk for contracting the virus,” the DHS Office of Inspector General wrote in a report released Wednesday.
The inspector general reviewed how federal law enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border apprehended, detained, and released illegal immigrants from March through May.
The report comes as the situation at the southern border has grown worse since the investigation was completed in May. More than 200,000 people were encountered illegally crossing the border in August, the second-highest amount in 21 years. The migration surge has placed further strain on Customs and Border Protection holding facilities and local organizations tasked with testing more people than have ever before been released from custody at the border.
Investigators were tipped off through a DHS employee complaint filed through the Office of Special Counsel. They were also concerned given media reports of severe overcrowding inside federal facilities.
Because the DHS is tasked with helping detect and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the claims further warranted an investigation. Poor conditions in initial holding facilities at the border have the ability to increase the spread of the coronavirus moving forward. Migrants who illegally cross the border from Mexico into the United States may be transferred from U.S. CBP to local nonprofit organizations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
CBP, the Border Patrol agents of which are the ones who initially encounter migrants, is not required to test migrants in its custody and has not tested any of the 1.5 million encountered at the border since last October. Instead, CBP relies on local health agencies, city resources, and nonprofit organizations to test migrants only after they have been released into cities across the southern border.
“The COVID-19 testing process for family units post-CBP custody is not effective because municipalities cannot force families to isolate for the required quarantine period,” the inspector general found. “Extended time-in-custody of migrants leads to overcapacity and overcrowding at Border Patrol stations.”
CBP is supposed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for keeping people socially distant.
“CBP is not able to maintain proper physical distancing in holding facilities due to the current number of migrants illegally entering the United States, and ICE’s and HHS’ inability to rapidly take custody of migrants,” the report continued. “Migrants are constantly reminded of COVID-19 risk but choose not to social distance or wear provided masks.”
One senior agent based at the southern border told investigators, “Because CBP does not have a COVID-19 testing policy, [unaccompanied children] are held in pods in close proximity with other potentially positive [unaccompanied children],” including some for more than 20 days without being tested.
The inspector general recommended that DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and the DHS chief medical officer reassess the department’s COVID-19 response framework and determine how to improve its response.
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Original Author: Anna Giaritelli