US Deportations Are Exporting COVID-19 to Latin America and the Caribbean

Travel is restricted around the world — but the United States has been flying migrants on hundreds of deportation flights to at least 11 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean since the pandemic began in the United States. There have been over 100 cases of migrants deported from the United States testing positive for COVID-19 upon being returned to Guatemala, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico and Colombia.

These deportations demonstrate the lengths to which the Trump administration is willing to go to prioritize its harsh immigration enforcement agenda. Under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention order issued on March 20, the administration closed U.S. borders to asylum seekers but still allowed truck drivers, students and others to continue entering the United States.

Over 20,000 migrants have since been expelled to Mexico or rapidly flown to their home country. Worse still, hundreds of unaccompanied children have been subject to this cruel policy in direct violation of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act passed by Congress in 2008 to establish a process for migrant children to receive temporary shelter and be reunited with their family members throughout their immigration proceedings.

These deportations also reflect the well-documented negligence in providing access to medical care and poor conditions for migrants in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency deporting migrants. Detainees have been denied access to soap, disinfectant and masks during this public health emergency. Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejia, a Salvadoran man, became the first detained person to die from COVID-19 after having been hospitalized from the Otay Mesa Detention Center in California.

There is no way to know how many more immigrants could already have been exposed to COVID-19, as ICE has only tested a fraction of those within its migrant jails. Of the ones that the agency did test, about 50 percent tested positive for COVID-19. ICE is now shuttling immigrants back and forth between migrant jails that have had COVID-19 outbreaks and then deporting them with just a temperature check. ICE will be unable to administer tests for all deported migrants, and even when it does test them, there has already been at least one case of a migrant deported back with certification from the U.S. that he tested negative only to test positive in Guatemala. We cannot rely on testing or wait until it is implemented.

Regardless of whether or not migrants test for COVID-19 before being placed on flights, they are being returned to extremely unstable and dangerous situations in their home countries. In El Salvador, those deported are taken directly from the airport to one of at least nine quarantine facilities for deported migrants where there have been reports of flooding, lack of access to medical care, overcrowding and unhygienic conditions.

Governments are also taking increasingly repressive measures in response to COVID-19. Over 6,000 individuals have been arrested in Honduras for violating curfews or for protesting over layoffs and lack of food, and one man there was killed and another seriously injured by the military police. Curfews and suspensions to public transportation prevent families from accessing their relatives at airports or quarantine centers, which is especially concerning for unaccompanied children.

Migrants are being deported to some of the poorest countries in the hemisphere with extremely fragile health care systems. Haiti may have as few as 60 ventilators for a country of 11 million people. A presidentially appointed panel of medical experts in Haiti recently called for a suspension of deportation flights to the country.

Like much of the Trump administration’s policies toward the region, deportations reflect a racist and myopic approach to Latin America and its people. The general attitude seems to be: It is not worth testing migrants for COVID-19 and it does not matter if they infect their communities when they are sent back.

“Any measure that contributes to regionally spreading the disease or putting people at risk must be stopped immediately. A major outbreak of COVID-19 could be catastrophic,” reads a statement from Doctors without Borders calling for a halt to deportations.

By exporting the virus, the United States is contributing to a destabilization of the region. There are already reports of growing food insecurity and deepening poverty due to COVID-19 in Latin America. Increased out-migration is likely to follow.

The United States should immediately halt deportation flights for as long as there is a public health emergency. Increasing testing of deported migrants alone is not the answer. Instead, the United States should release immigrants and asylum seekers and allow them to shelter in place with family and friends in the United States. It should also provide countries with assistance based on their public health needs, and not the extent to which they cooperate on migration enforcement. Doing so will make us all safer and help the region respond in these tough times, building its resiliency for the future.