By The Washington Post · Kevin Sieff, Nick Miroff · NATIONAL, WORLD, THE-AMERICAS
They put on masks and gloves. They prepare their thermometers and health forms. They wonder, sometimes aloud: Will anyone in this group test positive?
"We're worried that eventually, with these deportations, we're all going to get infected," said Calderón, the regional director of the Tamaulipas state immigration institute.
Since the coronavirus struck the United States, immigration authorities have deported dozens of infected migrants, leaving governments and nonprofit agencies across Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean struggling to respond.
When some countries resisted continued deportations, U.S. officials said they would screen migrants slated for removal. But they did not commit to administering coronavirus tests. In many instances, the screenings, which consist primarily of taking a person's temperature, have failed to detect cases. Even though overall deportations declined this month, the United States has returned thousands of people across the Western Hemisphere in April.
President Donald Trump said late Monday that he would "suspend immigration" to the United States. Even before that announcement, officials in the region were concerned about the deportations. Guatemala's health minister spoke this month of the worrying number of infected deportees sent from the United States - the "Wuhan of the Americas," he said, referring to the Chinese city where the novel coronavirus originated.
Mexico's Tamaulipas state, across the Rio Grande from the southern tip of Texas, is receiving about 100 deportees per day, officials there say. In some cases, repatriation workers have noticed that deportees are visibly sick as they arrive. Those deportations are blamed for at least one new outbreak in a Mexican migrant shelter.
On Monday, the Mexican government asked the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to test deportees for the virus, but the DHS has not committed to doing so, according to a Mexican official with knowledge of the conversations who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe diplomatic talks.
In Guatemala, at least 50 deportees have tested positive, about 17% of the country's total confirmed cases. Three-quarters of passengers on a deportation flight to Guatemala City last month were infected, according to the country's Health Ministry. Guatemalan officials said last week that they would suspend returns from the United States.
In Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, three people sent back from the United States in early April have tested positive, officials said. The country has 62 ventilators and a population of 11 million. The Trump administration reportedly was planning another deportation flight to Haiti this week.
"Rather than be deported where they face serious harm if they fall ill and risk infecting thousands of others, they should be released from detention into the care of their friends and families so that they may safely quarantine," a coalition of 164 human rights and religious organizations said in an open letter pleading for suspension of deportations.
In Mexico over the past week, two deportees tested positive for the virus. Calderón's team spotted a deportee in Reynosa who was visibly ill, with a dry cough, red eyes and a fever. They wondered how the man, who arrived from Atlanta, had made it through U.S. health screenings.
A second man was deported to Nuevo Laredo from Houston "without knowing he was a carrier of the virus," the Tamaulipas state government said in a statement, and was sent to a migrant shelter in the city.
That case apparently prompted an outbreak in the shelter, Casa del Migrante Nazareth; 14 others have since tested positive.
"The risk we face is bringing a massive contagion into our own country," said Raúl Cardenas, the city manager of Nuevo Laredo. "We're mortified that these deportations are continuing."
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reported Monday that 220 of the roughly 32,000 detainees it holds have tested positive. But given limited testing, officials say privately, the actual number is probably much higher.
In an email, ICE said it had deported 2,985 people in the first 11 days of April, on track for a significant decrease from previous months. Between January and March, ICE deported an average of 20,881 people per month. The agency did not respond to questions about continuing deportations during the pandemic.
On its website, the agency says it conducts medical screenings of detainees before they board deportation flights.
Any detainee who fails a screening or is suspected of being contagious "will be denied boarding and referred to an ICE approved facility for screening," the agency says. Starting last week, it said, "any detainee with a temperature of 99 degrees or higher will be immediately referred to a medical provider for further evaluation and observation."
Acting ICE director Matthew Albence told Congress last week that the agency had released about 700 people with underlying conditions that make them particularly vulnerable during the pandemic but was not considering further releases of others at high risk. In the email to The Washington Post, an ICE official wrote that the agency's "expectation is that each country will continue to meet its international obligation to accept its own nationals."
On Monday, a federal judge in California ordered ICE to review the cases of all high-risk detainees to consider their release. U.S. District Judge Jesus Bernal said ICE "likely exhibited callous indifference to the safety and wellbeing" of vulnerable detainees.
U.S. officials say the pandemic requires the suspension of immigration laws, including shutting down the asylum system. But they also say they're bound by law to continue deportations.
"ICE is trying to thread the needle between getting folks out of detention facilities as quickly and safely as possible but not releasing them en masse without testing," said one DHS official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations.
The agency has discretion to parole certain detainees, such as asylum seekers with pending cases. But many of its detainees have been charged with serious crimes and must be held, the official said.
The official said the DHS is unlikely to administer tests to every deportee unless foreign governments make that a condition for taking people back.
Many migrant shelters in Mexico and Central America, worried about the outbreak, have closed their doors. Some deportees have spent decades in the United States and aren't easily able to find housing or food after being sent back to their country of origin.
Under new rules applied during the pandemic, Central Americans who are caught crossing the border are now also deported to Mexico.
Mexico has raised concerns with the DHS that border agents are expelling Ecuadoran migrants and other third-country nationals who are not supposed to be returned under the emergency agreement, the official said.
The Rev. Francisco Gallardo, who runs a migrant shelter in Matamoros, called the possibility that deportees will arrive infected "a great concern for us."
"The deportees arrive at a bus station where migration officials receive them, but they don't have a serious health protocol in place," Gallardo said. "They just check for fevers and that's it. The migrants are already vulnerable, and this just adds to the level of discrimination."
He decided to close the shelter two weeks ago.