Originally Published in Politico
Erin Banco and Sabrina Rodriguez - March 18, 2021
Without tracking, it could become difficult to prevent outbreaks in packed migrant detention facilities
The federal government does not have a centralized system for tracking or responding to Covid-19 cases among the surge of migrants crossing the United States’ southern border, according to interviews with six senior administration officials and multiple individuals tasked with responding to the influx.
The Biden administration has outsourced most Covid-19 testing and quarantining for migrants to local health agencies and nongovernmental organizations. But it’s unclear how many have been tested for the virus, how many have tested positive and where infected people are being isolated along the border, four of the senior administration officials told POLITICO.
“It is really important to have a good surveillance system. You want to be able to test and isolate and to prevent infection to others. Outsourcing testing is fine. But you need to have a way to be able to have accurate testing data in one place,” said Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University's School of Public Health. “The crisis at the border has been going on for a while … you would think we would have worked out a process and a system by now where we would have an understanding of who was running the tests, what centralized entity was tracking those tests and who was in charge of following up on the results and acting on those results.”
Senior officials say the Biden administration is facing an unprecedented situation — processing thousands of migrants during a deadly pandemic — and it is taking more steps to mitigate the public health crisis at the border than the Trump administration did.
“Our policy is to coordinate with local governments and NGOs to ensure testing for migrants is available and that steps for isolation, quarantining and medical care can be taken should it be needed,” a spokesperson for the White House told POLITICO.
A senior administration official said the Department of Health and Human Services is conducting Covid-19 testing of unaccompanied minors using rapid antigen tests. Another senior official said adult migrants who crossed the border and have not been sent back to Mexico are being tested in border communities. However, the Department of Homeland Security did not answer requests about how many tests had been completed and how many migrants had tested positive.
In a hearing Wednesday, Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said DHS works with community-based organizations and local officials to test migrants who are released into local communities. Those who test positive are quarantined in those communities, he said. He also said the department works “with states when those states have the capacity to test and quarantine.” When those options are not available, he said, the department works with a vendor to test individuals who are in custody. Those who test positive are then transported to ICE facilities for quarantine.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has rejected an offer from DHS to use FEMA funds to help pay for testing and quarantining migrants who test positive. Abbott, for his part, has repeatedly slammed the Biden administration in recent days, saying it is releasing Covid-positive migrants and putting “the lives of Texans and Americans at risk.”
The Texas Division of Emergency Management has sent 40,000 coronavirus tests to Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo and Del Rio at no cost to the cities since late January. In El Paso, the Office of Emergency Management, which is run by both the city and county, has been providing the tests.
In McAllen, Texas, the city recently put up tents for Catholic Charities to handle the testing. Migrants — mainly family units — arriving and being allowed to stay in the U.S. are dropped off at the tents by Customs and Border Protection agents in vans or buses after being processed. Once administered a rapid test, those with negative results are walked over a block to the Catholic Charities respite center, where they coordinate their travel to be with family members. Those that test positive are offered assistance from nonprofits, not the government, to go quarantine at local hotels.
“It’s not a crisis in our city. We’re partnering with a great NGO and we provide support for them and they seem to handle it,” McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said.
In El Paso, Annunciation House, one of the nation’s largest shelter networks for migrants and refugees, is taking the lead on testing migrants, in collaboration with the city-county's emergency management office. Like in McAllen, migrants — mostly families — are dropped off by CBP at one of the network’s centers and immediately tested upon arrival.
Ruben Garcia, founder and executive director of Annunciation House, said he felt the federal government needs to partner an agency like the CDC or FEMA to work with the U.S. Border Patrol to carry out the testing.
“Border Patrol cannot do the testing. They’re not set up to do that. … It’s legitimate for the Border Patrol to say: ‘We don’t want that responsibility. It’s not enforcement, which is what we do.’ So, they need a partner to help them do the testing,” Garcia said. “That has to happen.”
Local officials and NGO leaders also note that migrants cannot be forced to quarantine if they test positive because they are already out of CBP custody and free to travel to their final destinations, which are often to meet family members outside of the border area.
Inside federal facilities along the border, officials and NGOs say they are trying their best to keep migrants, particularly children, socially distant from one another. But with capacity levels inching higher by the day, individuals charged with overseeing public health measures inside those facilities say it is becoming more and more difficult to maintain spacing.
“The big problem is just the amount of space it takes to isolate people,” said Craig Fugate, former FEMA administrator in the Obama administration. “Capacity has always been an issue at the border. But we haven’t seen anything like this before. Covid has complicated everything, and so I think the administration is doing its best to screen people when they come in and isolate them when needed. The question is what happens when these facilities fill up. … The virus can spread easily.”
One senior administration official working on the federal government’s work with child migrants said the CDC sent HHS information last week about which measures officials should take to keep unaccompanied minors safe. Those recommendations included conducting rapid antigen tests, ensuring proper mask fit, improving ventilation and cleaning surfaces. Border Patrol has been advised to immediately give masks to migrants at the time of apprehension.
A spokesperson for HHS said the surge of migrants at the border is contributing to increased risk for Covid-19 outbreaks in congregate settings.
“The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) facilities are more suitable for child-focused care with appropriately trained staff, but will require adoption of widespread mitigation measures to maintain a safe environment … given the current COVID-19 pandemic,” the spokesperson said, adding that the department would be increasing capacity at its facilities to “reduce the risk of outbreaks.”
“CDC believes the risk of an outbreak at an ORR facility that has instituted stricter mitigation measures and is operating at full capacity is lower than that at a densely packed CBP facility with little to no mitigation measures.”
Adm. Brett Giroir, who served as testing czar in the Trump administration, also warned that without testing, an outbreak could happen in CBP facilities. "I know what CBP facilities are, they are 300 people thrown into little concrete cells for 72 hours and then you send them out to wherever they're going," Giroir said. "That's not a good situation."
David Lim contributed to this report.