The United States Custom and Border Protection Agency told the New York Times Wednesday that it is not testing any of the illegal immigrants it intercepts coming across the United States-Mexico border for COVID-19 because the “challenges” to conducting so much testing are “insurmountable.”
Instead, the agency is relying on non-profits, immigrant advocacy organizations, and other groups that care for, house, and organize travel for those who recently jumped the border seeking asylum, to handle COVID-19 screening.
“As the United States vaccinates larger numbers of people and several states begin to reopen after seeing lower infection rates, the failure of U.S. authorities to test adult migrants for the coronavirus in jam-packed border processing centers is creating a potential for new transmissions,” the New York Times noted in its expose.
“[T]he Border Patrol is conducting no testing for the coronavirus during the several days that the newly arrived migrants are in U.S. custody except in cases where migrants show obvious symptoms,” the outlet added.
The challenges to testing illegal immigrants are “insurmountable,” the border patrol says, and the problem appears to stem from the sheer number of individuals crossing the United States border. In March, around 170,000 individuals were intercepted by border patrol — the highest number of interceptions in more than a decade, per the Washington Post. There have been major jumps in the number of unaccompanied minors and in the number of immigrant families presenting themselves at the border.
One border patrol chief who spoke to the New York Times said that it takes “90 minutes to three hours to process each migrant, including fingerprinting, gathering personal information and running a background check. Testing for the coronavirus and waiting for results would add another 20 minutes.”
“That’s 20 minutes times a thousand people,” the border patrol chief noted. “The Border Patrol does not want to get in the business of testing or inoculating people.”
Minors are being tested for COVID-19, but typically only after they spend a few days in border patrol custody. Children are screened for the novel coronavirus only before they are transferred to other government-run facilities.
Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, the chief medical officer at the Department of Homeland Security, defended the practice to the Times, saying that while operational limitations forced border patrol to forgo COVID-19 testing illegal immigrants, DHS is “working intensely with nonprofit groups and local officials to make sure migrants are screened immediately and tested later.”
That, the Times reported, leaves border towns — and even the migrants themselves — uneasy. The COVID-19 virus could easily spread in the cramped conditions of border processing facilities, and border towns are not ready to shoulder the burden of having to provide testing to migrants who have been released.
El Paso, Texas, community leaders begged DHS for assistance, telling the Biden administration that testing all released immigrants was “beyond the capacity of the combined efforts of our local governments and N.G.O. community.”
So far, at least, border patrol says there have been no major outbreaks of the virus, but it’s not clear how well the agency is able to track health data on migrants that leave border patrol custody.
“Migrants who have a positive result are transferred to a shelter,” the New York Times noted. “Others spend a night or two at the respite center and then board planes or buses to their destinations around the United States. Some of them could well have infections contracted in Border Patrol facilities that did not register on tests during the brief time they spent at the respite center, immigrant advocates warned, and could unknowingly expose others as they travel to join friends and family elsewhere in the country.”
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