DHS and ICE Communications and Directives Regarding the Coronavirus

Records from the U.S. Department of Health in response to American Oversight’s request for agency directives regarding the Coronavirus. Details on the content of these records are below.

In the Documents

February 2020
In late February 2020, ICE officials exchanged emails about personal protective equipment availability. On Feb. 28, Tae Johnson, then the assistant director of custody management, received a spreadsheet about N95 mask distribution, which according to the emails indicated an apparent shortfall of 13,000 masks. The emails also showed apparent confusion about whether ICE planned to order 40,000 or 5,000 masks. Johnson advocated ordering 40,000, but the number of masks eventually ordered is not clear from the records. (In January 2021, Johnson became ICE’s acting director.)

March 2020
March 10, 2020: ICE official Christopher Kelly sent acting ICE Director Matthew Albence a news article reporting that the Guatemalan government suspected that someone deported from the United States to Guatemala had Covid-19. Guatemala threatened to “turn off” flights. Albence replied, “Yeah that will be a problem.” Most of the rest of the conversation is redacted.

March 30, 2020: ICE officials exchanged emails about a man who tested positive for Covid-19 after being deported to Guatemala. An unnamed ICE employee emailed Tae Johnson the man’s itinerary, which did not indicate that the man had been tested for Covid-19 prior to departure. He had gone through screening questions and did not have symptoms such as fever, cough, chills, or night sweats. He had been detained at three locations between March 5 and 25. 

Albence and Johnson discussed whether this positive case meant they should cancel the next and following days’ deportation flights to Guatemala. They canceled the next day’s flight (Tuesday), but kept pushing for flights on Wednesday. Albence wrote, “Primary goal will be to move the T42 UAC [unaccompanied migrant children] and fill in others with them. We can’t get into a position where CBP is holding them for days on end waiting for the one weekly flight.” 

April 2020
April 15, 2020: A CDC employee emailed ICE officials about 48 people (out of 73 tested) who had tested positive for Covid-19 after being deported to Guatemala. The CDC employee concluded that this data “suggests an urgent need to assess COVID-19 infection rates among staff and detainees in the Steward facility,” potentially referring to the Stewart facility in Georgia. They added, “Further positive results among staff and/or detainees at this facility would suggest the need for immediate mitigation steps and quarantine.”

April 17, 2020: The Jamaican government sent a letter to DHS expressing concerns about U.S. plans to deport 62 migrants to Jamaica, pointing to a recent announcement by Guatemala that 75 percent of people on one deportation flight had tested positive for Covid-19. The Jamaican government asked that all deportees take rapid tests prior to flying, writing that temperature checks were not sufficient. The letter also said that a recent U.S. executive order authorizing sanctions against countries that refused to accept deportation flights had created the perception that Jamaica was “buckling under pressure from the USA” to accept “suspected Covid-19 positive” deportees, while Jamaican citizens were “stranded abroad.” It asked that if the U.S. lacked the capacity to conduct the rapid tests, it instead help Jamaica obtain 25,000 testing kits so that tests could be done upon arrival. 

April 24, 2020: A morning deportation flight schedule stated that Guatemala declined to take two unaccompanied minors, despite ICE alleging they displayed “no signs” of Covid-19. The update also stated that Colombia had requested a two-week delay for receiving deportation flights because of the need to set up quarantine facilities. 

In response to Albence asking, “Was Guat receptive?” ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) official Enrique Lucero said that the government of Guatemala was “‘checking’ but [redacted] didn’t press hard at the time, because she didn’t want them to come back and say test all the [family units].”

April 30, 2020: Marlen Pineiro, assistant ERO director, provided updates on flights to various countries. According to her email, the Guatemalan government requested that people deported from the U.S. be tested and that their negative results be sent for approval prior to the flight. “This is very logistically difficult and will add an additional detention day,” Pineiro wrote. “ERO is hoping to be able to push back on this request, meanwhile ERO is exploring ways to operationalize this request.”

May 2020
May 23, 2020: According to an update shared with ICE officials, Ecuador had reported that nine people from a May 22 flight had tested positive for Covid-19 after arrival in Ecuador. The update also mentioned that the government of India had shared an article about 22 Indian citizens having tested positive for Covid-19 on a May 19 flight. In response, India requested that ICE change its testing regime from rapid antibody tests to RT-PCR tests for all deportees.

May 25, 2020: Guatemala reported that six unaccompanied migrant children had tested positive for Covid after returning to Guatemala three days before. Two were re-tested and confirmed to be positive, while the other four were pending confirmation. “ERO continues to request the highest level of engagement possible and Sanctions considerations,” continued the update.

May 27, 2020: Tae Johnson shared a breakdown of deportations to Colombia, Honduras, and Ecuador that said no people deported to Colombia or Honduras had tested positive, but six people deported by ICE and three deported by CBP to Ecuador had later tested positive.

Guatemala ICE Testing Briefing Memo
A May 27 email detailed ICE’s Covid-19 testing protocol for Guatemala, including ICE’s testing methodology and the limitations of available tests. It stated that ICE would begin testing all new intakes and removals at its Health Service Corps-staffed facilities, and recommended that contracted facilities do the same. The memo mentioned that the rapid tests used by ICE had a high false-negative rate

In response to the memo, DHS Deputy Undersecretary for Management Randolph Alles wrote, “Not exactly a resounding endorsement of the machines we are using. … It seems to me it’s a battle of our test versus the one being used in Guatemala and the fact only Guatemala is turning up so many positives in return.”