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How Would the US Handle A Coronavirus Outbreak in Border Detention Facilities?

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sylvia longmire contributorBy Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security

In early March, President Donald Trump said he was weighing the idea of closing the southern border very strongly as a result of the coronavirus spread. However, just a few days later he backed off from the idea and said the administration was no longer considering it. Specifically, Trump said they haven’t seen any great evidence that the area is a problem at the moment. While it’s true that Central America has seen very numbers of positive coronavirus cases, no one seems to be examining the potential response to an outbreak along the border or inside border detention facilities.

600,000 Migrants

As of November 2017, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operated 1,478 adult migrant detention centers. Sixteen of these facilities have airborne infection isolation rooms. There are currently more than 52,000 people currently being held in ICE facilities while approximately 20,000 are being held in CBP centers. In the first half of 2019, Border Patrol agents took roughly 600,000 migrants into custody, resulting in critical overcrowding and unsanitary conditions at many facilities.

The spread of contagious diseases within migrant populations and US detention facilities is nothing new. Between September 2018 and August 2019, more than 700 migrants were infected with mumps after being exposed in detention centers. At least three minors have died from the flu while in custody, two of which reportedly did not receive adequate medical attention, and CDP has refused to administer free vaccines to migrants.  In May 2019, a detention center in Texas had to be isolated and shut down after nearly three dozen detainees became ill with the flu.

333 Migrants from China – None With Coronavirus

“Detention centers have become tinderboxes for infectious-disease outbreaks,” said Mark Travassos, an assistant professor of pediatrics and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the UMSOM Center for Vaccine Development and Global Health. “Detainees are crammed into facilities that are sometimes stretched five times beyond their maximum capacity. Investigations suggest that most detainees lack facilities to wash their hands before eating or after using the toilet.”

According to Department of Homeland Security data, 333 migrants from China have been apprehended at the southwest border since late December 2019. None have tested positive for the coronavirus. Last week, Border Patrol asked the CDC to take over testing of those migrants you show symptoms consistent with coronavirus. “It’s absolutely a risk that we’re monitoring and we’re evaluating,” CBP Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan told Fox News. “And if it shifts and we’re asked to do more at the SW border, we’re ready to operationalize that.”

In 2019, President Trump cleared in national emergency over the spike in illegal immigrant apprehensions at the southwest border, and also as a way to redirect billions of dollars in funding for border wall construction. Currently, approximately 1,000 migrants per day are caught attempting to enter the United States illegally from Mexico.  Honduras has reported two positive cases, Mexico has 12 positive cases, and no cases have been reported from El Salvador or Guatemala. However, migrants apprehended at the southwest border come from dozens of other countries as well.

More Than 1 Million Passengers Per Day

All this being said, the current conversation seems to center around the prospect of an illegal immigrant bringing a coronavirus case into detention centers from Mexico. No one seems to address the possibility of a Border patrol or CBP agent doing the same. According to a CBP summary of facts and figures, on a typical day, the agency processes more than 1.1 million passengers and pedestrians. Almost 700,000 of these are incoming land travelers, and over 270,000 of these arrive in privately owned vehicles at ports of entry.

CBP currently employs approximately 20,000 Border Patrol agents and roughly 25,000 CBP officers. If any of these agents, either at a port of entry or in the field, becomes infected with coronavirus, one can clearly see the potential for exponential spread to passengers, as well immigrants held in close confinement in border detention facilities. These aren’t jobs that agents can perform from home, and it’s unclear what impact the absence of agents from border posts would have on mission effectiveness.

Possible Coronavirus Infection Among Border Agents

It’s highly likely that DHS has addressed the potential issues that could arise from coronavirus infection among border agents. However, any plans to mitigate the impact have certainly not been made clear to the general public. Given that migrants currently in detention are unlikely to be released in the case of infection, and that most border detention facilities don’t have isolation cells, it’s also unclear how such an outbreak would be effectively managed.

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