As Covid-19 spread across the United States last March, President Donald Trump announced a partial closure of the U.S.-Mexico border, citing the threat that the virus posed to Americans. That same month, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported thousands of undocumented immigrants to Central America and elsewhere, often without testing them for the coronavirus beforehand. By July, 11 countries around the world had found cases of Covid-19 among those who were deported from the U.S.
American Oversight has obtained communications from the Department of State spanning March and April 2020, which show federal officials sharing information about the deportations to Guatemala, including details about clear potential Covid-19 symptoms among migrants on these flights. Later reporting revealed that during this time, ICE did not adopt sufficient mitigation measures: The agency didn’t test Guatemalan migrants prior to deportation until April 26, and didn’t require those aboard the flights to wear masks until May.
In March 2020, the Trump administration invoked Title 42, an obscure section of the U.S. health code, to turn away border arrivals. The policy, which the administration claimed would prevent the spread of Covid-19, was instated over the objections of CDC scientists. Later reporting found that Stephen Miller, Trump’s top immigration adviser, had wanted to use Title 42 to restrict immigration as early as 2018. President Joe Biden has maintained the policy, which has enabled the expulsion of more than 500,000 migrants since October.
The newly obtained documents contain a number of emails regarding symptoms exhibited by deportees, sent by officials whose names are for the most part fully redacted. In one email to State Department officials working on the Guatemala desk, an official said that two minors who were “extremely ill” had been on a March 23, 2020, removal flight to Guatemala; another email sent that week said that an unaccompanied minor on a March 26 flight had a cough that triggered Covid-19 screening protocols.
Concerns about deportations fueling the spread of the virus led Guatemalan officials to ask at the end of that month that the U.S. stop all deportations. “We have asked in the kindest terms, knowing that we are friends and allies, to stop deportations during this crisis to not make things worse,” a Guatemalan official told the Wall Street Journal.
An email sent on April 1 noted that a deportation flight scheduled for that day had been canceled, and that acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf was seeking to speak with Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo about “immediately resuming” the flights. According to another email later that day, Brolo agreed to allow one flight per day beginning April 2.
Over the following weeks, the number of infected people connected to these earlier deportations continued to rise. On April 7, the Guatemalan Ministry of Health reported that three adult individuals who had been sent back to Guatemala on March 26 had tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Guatemala. The emails mention that on April 11, Guatemala’s vice minister of foreign relations, Eduardo Hernandez, told ICE that three infected individuals who had been deported on March 26 had spread Covid-19 to a total of 80 people in Guatemala. And on April 18, the New York Times reported that at least 30 people on two March 26 flights had already contracted Covid-19 before they arrived in Guatemala.
Throughout April, as the flights continued, officials shared information about symptoms experienced by deportees. On one flight that landed in Guatemala City on April 13, an individual had a “fever of 102 degrees”; a week later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that 51 of the 76 deported individuals on that flight had tested positive for Covid-19. In data later released by the Guatemalan government and reported on by the Arizona Republic, 70 of the 76 migrants on that flight had tested positive after disembarking from the plane.
Guatemalan officials again halted deportations from the U.S. on April 16, but White House officials pushed for these flights to continue. On April 18, an official whose name is redacted said that “the White House’s priority is to continue the Title 42 removals.” The very next day, Guatemalan officials agreed to a White House request to receive a plane with unaccompanied minors on board.