DHS watchdog: Migrants weren’t tested for COVID before transport on domestic commercial flights

The top watchdog for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revealed that the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) failed to test migrants before transferring, transporting and releasing migrants from ICE detention facilities – a clear violation of the department’s COVID-19 policy.

“We identified numerous instances where ERO could not provide evidence that single adults, family units, and [unaccompanied children] were tested for COVID-19 before transport on domestic commercial flights,” the report, authored by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at DHS, found.

The watchdog noted that “without clear COVID-19 testing policies and controls in place to enforce these policies, ERO may transport COVID-19–positive migrants on domestic commercial flights.” The report said the failed policy “risk[ed] exposing other migrants, ERO staff, and the general public to COVID-19.”

As it relates to COVID-19 testing for unaccompanied minors, the OIG report acknowledged that while ICE, CBP, and HHS signed a memorandum of agreement in March 2021 outlining interagency coordination, that agreement “does not define which entity, if any, is responsible for administering COVID-19 tests to [unaccompanied children.]†

In a letter dated April 1, 2021, DHS’ chief medical officer, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, wrote in a memo to then-acting CBP Commissioner Troy Miller and acting ICE Director Tae Johnson that the prevalence of coronavirus’ alpha variant “necessitates an immediate change to the testing approach of unaccompanied children in our custody.”

“Effective immediately, all [unaccompanied children] should be tested prior to transport to Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should transport [unaccompanied children] in COVID-19 positive and negative cohorts,” the letter, included in the OIG report, reads. Gandhi also noted that a lack of beds in HHS Office of Refugee Resettlement facilities resulted in an increased number of migrant children held at CBP facilities and increased time in custody. “Therefore, the risk of COVID-19 transmission increases.”

Yet the watchdog found that while DHS’ chief medical officer had recommended that ICE and CBP test unaccompanied children, neither entity ensured that unaccompanied children were tested for COVID before they were transported.

“Instead, ERO officials deferred testing responsibility for [unaccompanied children] to HHS,” the inspector general wrote.

And while ERO officials stated that COVID-19-positive unaccompanied minors would not be transported on commercial flights, officials “did not record which [unaccompanied children] HHS tested for COVID-19.” Instead, they relied on “word of mouth to determine which [unaccompanied children] were COVID-19–positive and –negative.”

The inspector general also found that while DHS’ Office of the Chief Medical Officer initially asserted that HHS-contracted healthcare providers at CBP facilities test all unaccompanied children for COVID-19 before transport to HHS facilities, HHS later clarified that its contractors test unaccompanied minors ” in only five of the nine US Border Patrol sectors along the southwest border.” DHS’ senior medical officer later confirmed this information, according to the DHS OIG report. Contractors in Texas sectors Big Bend and Laredo Sectors, as well as California’s San Diego and El Centro sectors did not test accordingly.

Recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for US and non-citizen travelers have evolved throughout the pandemic. In December 2020, the CDC recommended COVID-19 testing for all travelers 1 to 3 days before a flight. More than a year later, the CDC updated its guidance to recommend COVID-19 testing 1 to 3 days before a domestic flight for non-vaccinated travelers, following the nationwide vaccination rollout in April 2021.

In January 2021, the CDC required that all air passengers, two years of age and older, arriving from a foreign country test negative for COVID-19 or provide documentation of having recovered from COVID-19. Later that year, in November 2021, the CDC mandated that non-US citizens, 18 years and older, be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before traveling by air to the US Most recently, in January 2022, DHS extended that vaccine requirement to non -US citizens seeking to enter the USvia land ports of entry and ferry terminals at both the USCanadian and Mexican borders.

At the conclusion of its report, DHS’ inspector general recommended that ICE:

  1. Coordinate with CBP and the DHS Chief Medical Officer to determine and document whether noncitizen unaccompanied children and family units should be tested for COVID-19 before transport on domestic commercial flights. If ICE ERO determines noncitizen unaccompanied children and family units should be tested, we recommend ICE ERO develop detailed testing policies and establish controls to ensure staff and contractors follow the policies. These policies should include modes of transportation and timeframes for mandatory testing before transport.

  1. Establish controls to ensure staff and contractors follow existing requirements to test single adults for COVID-19 before transfer using domestic commercial flights.

  1. Clarify existing COVID-19 testing policies to include modes of transportation and timeframes for mandatory testing before transport.

  1. Maintain complete and accurate migrant COVID-19 testing and transport records.

In a written response to the Office of the Inspector General’s report, last month, ICE concurred with all recommendations except the second.

“ICE leadership agrees with the intent of OIG’s findings and considers a number of proposed actions regarding the testing of noncitizen family units or unaccompanied children already addressed,” wrote Acting ICE Chief of Staff Jason Houser. “ICE Is committed to ensuring non-citizens in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments, and under appropriate conditions of confinement. As such, ICE has implemented, executed and ensures healthcare protocols and testing procedures for COVID-19 in alignment with the CDC’s Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities.”

Since the DHS Inspector first launched its investigation, the US COVID-19 landscape has evolved.

DHS is now vaccinating as many as 1,000 migrants in US custody per day as part of a recently launched vaccination program along the border with Mexico. Since late March, the US government has vaccinated more than 20,000 migrants and asylum-seekers in US border custody, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi told CBS News, this week.

The vaccination effort predates the end of Title 42, the policy first implemented by the Trump administration that allows US officials to expel migrants without processing their asylum claims.

Title 42, which the US government previously argued was needed to prevent migrants from spreading the coronavirus inside border facilities, is set to end next week, pending ongoing litigation. A federal judge in Louisiana could force the Biden administration to continue the policy.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed to this report.

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