By Ted Hesson and Mica Rosenberg
WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) plans to begin testing some migrants in detention for COVID-19 before deporting them to other countries, a U.S. official familiar with the effort said on Thursday.
ICE will acquire 2,000 tests per month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to screen deportees, the official said, without mentioning the timing.
The agency is unlikely to have enough tests for all deportees and will need to prioritize, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
ICE and HHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The move comes amid criticism from foreign governments about receiving migrants infected with the coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19.
Guatemala said it would stop receiving deportees from the United States after at least 63 returning migrants tested positive for COVID-19, nearly a fifth of all the reported cases in the Central American country.
President Alejandro Giammattei said last week the suspension would remain in place until the United States was able to certify people were being sent back virus-free.
Later on Thursday, the Guatemalan government said a flight carrying 45 deportees, including 15 unaccompanied minors, would be allowed to arrive on Friday due the “vulnerable” state of those deported after they were apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border. It added that the flight is a exceptional “humanitarian” act, and that the pause on deportee flights remains in place.
Giammattei said in a television briefing Thursday night that health officials had confirmed 42 new coronavirus cases, 22 of them from deportees.
ICE moved to step up testing to avoid risking more countries’ pulling back cooperation with deportation flights, the U.S. official said.
“The news articles about COVID spread in ICE facilities and individuals who tested positive after being removed are making governments nervous about continuing to accept flights,” the official said.
More than 250 immigrant detainees in U.S. custody have tested positive for COVID-19. But only some 425 tests had been conducted on the more than 32,000 detainees nationwide, an ICE spokeswoman said on Wednesday. Dozens of unaccompanied migrant children in HHS custody have also tested positive for the virus, the agency has said.
As of this month, there were some 4,600 Guatemalan adults and more than 1,100 children being held in U.S. custody, according to a Guatemalan government document.
In Guatemala, 384 total cases of coronavirus have been confirmed, along with 11 deaths.
ICE removed more than 267,000 people in fiscal year 2019, which began in October 2018.
In the midst of the pandemic, deportations continued, even as the administration of President Donald Trump took extreme measures to cut off the country’s border to immigrants and travelers.
From March 21 to April 20, as coronavirus cases were rapidly rising in the United States, more than 1,400 deportees were sent to Guatemala, including families and unaccompanied minors, according to Guatemalan Health Minister Hugo Monroy.
There were a significant number of people infected on several ICE flights, one in late March and two last week, Monroy said. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was deployed to review cases on the flights but the agency declined to provide more details on the investigation.
Guatemala’s foreign minister, Pedro Brolo, told lawmakers on Monday the government had pushed the United States to do more.
“We were able to tell them, ‘Look we have these cases, please make some revisions,'” he said. “We don’t want people on those flights who are healthy but who then get infected on the same flight.”
In addition to Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica and Ecuador also have asked for testing, the U.S. official said. “They all want it. Who wouldn’t?”
(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Mica Rosenberg in New York; Additional reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Editing by Richard Chang, Leslie Adler and Michael Perry)