A new released report from a government watchdog has revealed that the Department of Homeland Security put migrants, staff, and border communities at risk of having a COVID outbreak by not adequately screening migrants who came over the border illegally.
“DHS leadership must commit to strengthening these COVID-19 preventative measures. Without stronger measures in place, DHS is putting its workforce, support staff, communities, and migrants at greater risk for contracting the virus,” the DHS Office of Inspector General stated in a new report released Wednesday.
The inspector general then reviewed how federal law enforcement located at the U.S.-Mexico border apprehended, detained, and then released illegal immigrants starting back in March and going through May.
The report comes as the situation at the southern border has grown worse since the investigation was completed in May. More than 200,000 people were encountered illegally crossing the border in August, the second-highest amount in 21 years. The migration surge has placed further strain on Customs and Border Protection holding facilities and local organizations tasked with testing more people than have ever before been released from custody at the border.
Investigators were tipped off through a DHS employee complaint filed through the Office of Special Counsel. They were also concerned given media reports of severe overcrowding inside federal facilities.
Because the DHS is tasked with helping detect and mitigate the spread of the coronavirus, the claims further warranted an investigation. Poor conditions in initial holding facilities at the border have the ability to increase the spread of the coronavirus moving forward. Migrants who illegally cross the border from Mexico into the United States may be transferred from U.S. CBP to local nonprofit organizations, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.
CBP, the Border Patrol agents of which are the ones who initially encounter migrants, is not required to test migrants in its custody and has not tested any of the 1.5 million encountered at the border since last October. Instead, CBP relies on local health agencies, city resources, and nonprofit organizations to test migrants only after they have been released into cities across the southern border.
“The COVID-19 testing process for family units post-CBP custody is not effective because municipalities cannot force families to isolate for the required quarantine period,” the inspector general went on to say. “Extended time-in-custody of migrants leads to overcapacity and overcrowding at Border Patrol stations.”
“CBP is not able to maintain proper physical distancing in holding facilities due to the current number of migrants illegally entering the United States, and ICE’s and HHS’ inability to rapidly take custody of migrants,” the report said. “Migrants are constantly reminded of COVID-19 risk but choose not to social distance or wear provided masks.”
Since the start of the pandemic, more than 11,000 of CBP’s 60,000 employees have come down with COVID-19. Forty-three employees actually died from the illness, many of them having been stationed on the border.