Originally published by The NY Times
The key ingredients for an infectious disease outbreak are no secret: people with immune systems that have been weakened by stress and poor nutrition, crammed into close quarters with one another and denied basic hygiene and health care, for extended periods of time. That’s why diseases like cholera, dysentery and tuberculosis have long thrived in refugee camps and prisons and among soldiers during wartime.
So federal officials should not be surprised that migrant detention centers along the nation’s southern border have become hotbeds of communicable diseases — with multiple outbreaks of scabies, shingles, lice, mumps, chickenpox and flu logged this year and last. As the Office of Inspector General noted in a July report, these facilities are dangerously overcrowded. Detainees there have not been provided with adequate nutrition, sanitation or health care. And many of them are being held for weeks or months in quarters designed for a 72-hour stay.
The report describes horrendous conditions: 88 people crammedinto a room meant for 41, detainees forced to go months without a shower or a change of clothes, young children covered in filth for weeks on end. At least six children have died from communicable diseases in these facilities in the past two years.
At least three of those deaths were related, in part, to flu. Which makes all the more confounding reports from CNBC and other outlets last week that immigration officials have no plans to vaccinate detainees before the coming flu season.
Confounding, but not surprising — after all, this is the sameadministration that argued in court against providing detained migrant children with basic necessities like soap, toothbrushes and sleeping mats; that has failed to provide those same children with adequate schooling, to which they are legally entitled; and that has knowingly sent them to facilities where sexual abuse has been reported.
This lapse of basic preventive health care in the federal government’s own detention centers is particularly cruel, given that children are most susceptible to diseases like flu. It’s also deeply unwise. Disease outbreaks have a way of spreading well beyond the populations in which they originate, and flu in particular is much less expensive to prevent than it is to respond to. Nonsensical as this is, there’s a painfully familiar calculus at work: Deny migrants or refugees humane treatment, including basic medical care, and then when they fall ill blame them for “bringing disease” into the country.
A spokesman for United States Customs and Border Protection says that the agency has not historically administered vaccinesand that a vaccination program in the detention centers is neither feasible nor necessary, because stays at these facilities are meant to be short-term. The spokesman also notes that the agency has increased medical staff from 20 to 200 in the past year.
But on Wednesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced proposed regulations that would abolish the 20-day limit on detaining migrant families that’s been in place since 1997, allowing the federal government to hold them indefinitely. The proposed rule changes, which would gut what’s known as the Flores settlement, also would undo several policies meant to protect the human rights of detained migrant children. For instance, attorneys would no longer have guaranteed access to the detention centers where their clients are held.
The proposed regulations were published in the federal register on Friday and could take effect after 60 days — though they will nearly certainly face a protracted legal challenge. One hopes that human rights and human decency will prevail and the Flores settlement will stay in place. In the meantime, federal officials would do well to implement a comprehensive health care program at the detention centers that includes a focus on disease prevention.