Latin America, Wary of Exported Coronavirus, Voices Concern Over U.S. Deportations
Latin American governments, already struggling to contain the coronavirus from spreading in their countries, are now contending with a new challenge: new cases of the disease arriving with migrants deported by the U.S.
Tensions between some Central American nations and the U.S. have grown in recent days after several deported migrants were found to be infected with Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Guatemala suspended nearly all deportation flights last week after President Alejandro Giammattei said “a large part” of a flight with 76 repatriated Guatemalans was infected. The country is in talks with the U.S. to restart flights once American authorities can certify all deportees have tested negative for the disease, Guatemalan officials said.
On Friday, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed it would begin acquiring 2,000 coronavirus test kits a month to test immigrants it plans to deport, though the agency acknowledged it wouldn’t be able to test every deportee with that number of kits.
The governments worry that returned migrants could spark new waves of infections that overwhelm ill-equipped health-care systems. The U.S., in turn, has threatened these governments with visa sanctions and potential aid cutoffs should they refuse to continue taking back their repatriated citizens, say U.S. officials familiar with the discussions.
The problem is twofold: Detention centers operated by ICE have reported virus outbreaks in facilities across the country, where deported immigrants have gotten infected. And under a newly-implemented emergency measure, immigration authorities are quickly turning back migrants who cross the border without performing any medical check.
The U.S. government in March adopted the temporary turn-back policy—under which migrants are denied access to the U.S. asylum system—in part out of fear that the coronavirus would spread rapidly through cramped and unsanitary border stations.
The issue has become particularly acute in Mexican border cities that receive returned migrants. The Mexican state of Tamaulipas, bordering Texas, said this week that it had identified 16 migrants infected with coronavirus, nearly all at a local shelter in Nuevo Laredo. The source of contagion was a Mexican citizen deported from a detention center near Houston, said Francisco García, the Tamaulipas governor’s spokesman.
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The border state of Chihuahua also confirmed the first case of a deported immigrant infected with Covid-19, and local authorities suspect there are many more undetected cases.
“Deportees are one of our biggest concerns right now,” said Javier Corral, the governor of Chihuahua state. “They constitute the biggest threat of imported cases, along with the Mexicans who are returning to Mexico anguished by the enormous amount of coronavirus cases reported in the U.S.”
Three Haitians deported from the U.S. to the Caribbean country two weeks ago tested positive while in quarantine, a Health Ministry official told Reuters.
Several Latin American governments have resisted receiving deportation flights for the duration of the pandemic, but the U.S. has pushed back, promising to screen immigrants before sending them on flights and, in some cases, threatening countries with sanctions, say immigration officials in several countries.
Honduras and El Salvador are still receiving deportation flights under significant pressure from U.S. authorities, said immigration officials from both countries. No confirmed cases of infected deportees have been officially reported in either one so far.
Across ICE detention centers, the agency has tested just 425 of the 32,000 immigrants in its custody as of Tuesday, and 253—about 60%—tested positive for the virus. That rate, compared with the 20% test-positive rate across the U.S. population, suggests the true number of infections across ICE detention centers is likely much higher.
ICE said it was conducting testing according to guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which limit tests to older and medically vulnerable immigrants. The agency is also taking action to create some amount of social distancing in its facilities, such as staggering meal and recreation times and isolating immigrants newly taken into custody for 14 days.
So far, immigration authorities aren’t testing immigrants before sending them on flights, though the agency has said it is performing temperature checks of each passenger.
On Wednesday, President Trump signed a proclamation blocking most would-be immigrants from coming to the U.S., an action taken in part to highlight his administration’s efforts to close off the country to foreigners.
Human-rights advocates say the U.S., which is now the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic with more than 869,000 cases, should suspend all deportations until the disease retreats.
“It is irresponsible for the U.S. to be deporting migrants to countries who are ill-equipped to address a public-health crisis that could be provoked by deportees with undetected cases of the virus,” said Maureen Meyer, an immigration expert at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research and advocacy organization.
The U.S. government deported some 240,000 migrants to Mexico and Central America’s Northern Triangle—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—in fiscal year 2019. Those four countries receive around 90% of all people repatriated by the U.S.
While the flow of migrants toward the U.S.-Mexico border has plummeted more than 80% since last year’s peak, the U.S. is still deporting substantial numbers of people, local officials in Mexico and Central America say.
Some Mexican border ports received as many as 180 deported migrants some days this month, two Mexican state officials said. In March, the state of Chihuahua received nearly 1,000 deportees, half the normal rate but still high, said Mirna Beltrán, the state deputy health minister. Guatemala received some 2,500 people deported since early March until the country suspended deportation flights until further notice on April 16, a Guatemalan health official said.
As an exception, Guatemala did agree to accept on Friday a flight with 12 unaccompanied children, two pregnant women and two members of a family who crossed the border in recent days and were expelled under the government’s new public-health emergency order, said an official at Guatemala’s Foreign Ministry. Regular flights are still suspended until further notice.
Mexico’s administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has nurtured a friendly relationship with Mr. Trump, has become a target of criticism in Mexico.
Mr. López Obrador is taking all Mexican deportees, as well as many Central American citizens removed at the border by the U.S.
In recent weeks, Mexican border states, including Chihuahua, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, have demanded that Mr. López Obrador’s government stop taking Central American deportees and implement widespread testing, Mexican state officials say.
They also complain that the U.S. is deporting an increasing number of migrants at night, making it more difficult for local authorities to check the migrants’ health status upon their return.
“This is adding insult to injury,” said Gloria Garza, a top official at the Tamaulipas Interior Ministry. “We are taking Central Americans, while Guatemala and other Central American countries closed their borders. Why aren’t we protecting our border?”
A spokesman at Mexico’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a call seeking comment.
Mexican border cities face an added challenge from Central American migrants returned under a program called Remain in Mexico, in which they await their asylum claims in that country. The program has sent back more than 60,000 migrants to live temporarily in northern Mexico.
Around 1,500 Central American migrants live in a tent camp in Matamoros, across Brownsville, Texas. “This camp is a time bomb that threatens to overwhelm the state’s health-care system if there is an outbreak there,” said Mr. García, the Tamaulipas official.
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Some shelters across the border are refusing to take new migrants. Permanent shelters in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, only accept migrants who had over 14 days of quarantine in temporary shelters set up by the government, said Ms. Beltran, the health official.
The migrant shelter in Nuevo Laredo where a returned migrant infected 14 others has closed its doors to new migrants. The returned migrant, a 37-year-old man from Mexico’s western state of Michoacán, was deported from the Joe Corley Detention Facility at Conroe, near Houston, Texas, Tamaulipas authorities say.
In announcing its closure to new migrants, the shelter said: “Unfortunately, without noticing it, the Covid-19 had already entered the house.”
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