During the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) deported thousands of migrants to Central America and elsewhere, often without taking proper safety measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 among migrants or in the destination countries.
Public reporting as well as records obtained by American Oversight have shone a light on ICE’s reckless approach to the virus and the outbreaks that occurred after deportations and the transfer of detainees between facilities. Documents from the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department included communications among officials about deportations during the pandemic, including regular updates on the number of migrants who tested positive after being deported.
Additional records recently obtained by American Oversight include coronavirus symptom screening protocols from April and May 2020 that show the agency slowly introducing additional screening standards as it continued deporting migrants, including those who said they had been exhibiting symptoms. ICE administered some rapid tests during this time, but had a high false negative rate. By mid-summer 2020, 11 countries around the world had found positive cases among those deported from the United States.
The latest records include guidance sent to field office directors on April 6, outlining requirements that detainees wear masks on ICE transfer and removal flights. The email also stated that it “serves as a reminder” that all individuals should receive a temperature check prior to transfer or removal, and that migrants with fevers above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit should be referred to a medical provider and not be transferred or deported.
A May 18 email sent to all field office directors established a new screening protocol that included checking for symptoms other than fever. According to the message, a checklist originally distributed on May 4 had been “revised to list specific symptoms for staff and officers to be aware of when considering an alien for release, transfer, or removal,” and specified a temperature limit of 99 degrees. The checklist instructed officers to conduct a verbal screening for a long list of symptoms, such as sore throat and chills. An attached set of FAQs notes that while the symptom list was not necessary to complete for all Enforcement and Removal Operations activities, such as transporting migrants to a detention facility for the first time, it was required “prior to all removals.”
The records were obtained in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed in 2020 for all protocols and guidance issued to ICE by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.