GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — The Trump administration’s failure to test all but a small percentage of detained immigrants for the novel coronavirus may be helping it spread through the United States’ sprawling system of detention centers and then to Central America and elsewhere aboard regular deportation flights, migrants’ advocates said Friday.
More than 1,600 deportees from the United States to Guatemala over the last month were allowed to go to their homes and into voluntary, unenforced quarantine. Fears are rising that it may have seeded the country with an untold number of undetected cases, increasing the Central American nation’s vulnerability to the pandemic.
U.S. authorities took passengers’ temperatures before departure, and Guatemalan officials checked them for cough, fever and other symptoms on arrival. Those with possible COVID-19 symptoms would then have their mucous and saliva tested, but apparently healthy deportees underwent no testing and were allowed to head home even if they arrived on a flight with sick people.
Health experts say that was very risky because many infected people never show symptoms but are still highly contagious. Airport workers and at least one family member of a deportee have tested positive for coronavirus in Guatemala and are believed to have been infected by returned migrants, said Dr. Edwin Asturias, a University of Colorado epidemiologist who is from Guatemala and maintains close contact with health authorities there.
“It’s clear that deportees have been coming infected and without appropriate safety measures in the same airspace with other people,” Asturias said. “As we’re seeing, this type of deportation is producing contagion in Guatemala.”
Only on Monday did Guatemala begin testing every passenger who had shared a flight with someone confirmed as positive. The same day, a plane carrying 76 people arrived on an ICE flight from Alexandria, Louisiana. A migrant who was feeling ill was tested and found to be infected, leading to tests for everyone else on the flight. Forty-three tested positive despite showing no signs of illness and were now in medical quarantine, officials said.
“It’s very worrying because these adults and children are being deported from places with high levels of contagion,” said Leonel Dubón, director of Refuge for Childhood, a center for young and vulnerable deportees in Guatemala.
ICE has restricted the movement of hundreds of detainees across the United States after they were suspected of coming into contact with an infected person, according to interviews with detainees and lawyers. The agency did not immediately confirm how many people are in isolation, but 105 cases have been identified in at least 25 detention facilities so far.
A Department of Homeland Security official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal procedures said that the U.S. does not test everyone in immigration custody because there are a limited number of tests available not just to ICE but worldwide.
“We are only testing individuals we have reasons to belive may have the disease because of symptoms or close contact with individuals with symptoms,” the official said.
At the Richwood Correctional Center in Monroe, Louisiana, three cases have been confirmed and dozens of detainees are under lockdown. One Guatemalan detainee who has COVID-19, Diego Ortiz Garcia, said Friday that he is confined to a dorm with about 20 other people suspected of having the virus.
Another Richwood detainee who was infected, Salomon Diego Alonzo, was hospitalized Thursday. According to his attorney, Veronica Semino, Alonzo was taken there shortly after a guard told an immigration judge he “does not have the lung capacity” to speak during a hearing he listened to remotely, by phone.
So far there hasn’t been any documented case of the virus among deportees to other countries in Central America’s Northern Triangle region.
In El Salvador, more than 800 have arrived over the last month and been placed into 30-day quarantine. President Nayib Bukele said in a statement to AP that 70 percent have been tested with none coming back postive. Tests are pending for the rest.
Honduras also continues to receive U.S. deportation flights, and while officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment, migrants’ advocates said they were unaware of any testing positive.
That hasn’t eased concerns regionwide, however.
“Every airplane that arrives with deportees is an alarm bell for the communities in our countries” said César Ríos, director of the non-governmental Salvadoran Institute of Migration.
ICE has said 25 employees at U.S. detention centers have tested positive including 13 at a removal staging facility at the airport in Alexandria, which has sent at least 17 flights to Guatemala this year. It has not said how many of the 32,000 people in U.S. immigration detention have been tested for the virus.
Attorneys for detainees have raised alarms about the risks of holding people in close proximity amid the outbreak. About half of those in ICE detention have no criminal history apart from an immigration violation, and advocates question whether these people need to be in custody given the crisis.
Despite twice halting deportation flights briefly, Guatemala has been receiving about one per day carrying roughly 50 to 100 people from a variety of U.S. detention centers over the last month, a sharp reduction from the normal pace. Guatemala halted deportation flights again Thursday evening in what the foreign affairs minister called a temporary pause.
ICE said once the tests of the passengers on Monday’s flight are rechecked and confirmed, it will decide whether it needs to re-evaluate medical protocols.
Dr. Michele Heisler, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan, said ICE’s practice of screening only deportees with fevers is “absolutely inadequate” and it would best to test them all.
With a population 17.2 million, Guatemala had 207 confirmed cases as of Friday afternoon.
“Guatemala will be overwhelmed,” Heisler said. “They already have a very fragile health care system. From a public health and medical perspective, this is just unbelievably irresponsible of our country.”