In October 2020, in conjunction with the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States began experiencing a surge of migrants at the southwest border, adding increased risk to an unprecedented public health emergency.
The Office of Inspector General received a referral from the Office of Special Counsel concerning the lack of COVID-19 testing at one CBP location. The watchdog therefore conducted a limited review to determine to what extent the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has implemented measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in migrants at the southwest border.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) does not conduct COVID-19 testing for migrants who enter CBP custody and is not required to do so. Instead, CBP relies on local public health systems to test symptomatic individuals. According to CBP officials, as a frontline law enforcement agency, it does not have the necessary resources to conduct such testing. For migrants who are transferred or released from CBP custody into the United States, CBP coordinates with DHS, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal, state, and local partners for COVID-19 testing of migrants. For example, if CBP contracted medical staff encounter an individual with a high fever — a key symptom of COVID-19 — they would have to call a local public health department to determine whether the individual should be transferred to a local medical facility for testing.
OIG’s review found that although DHS generally follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 preventative measures, DHS’ multi-layered COVID-19 testing framework does not require CBP to conduct COVID-19 testing at CBP facilities. The framework is not documented in a formal policy. Further, DHS’ Chief Medical Officer does not have the authority to direct or enforce COVID-19 testing procedures. Currently, only the Secretary, Deputy Secretary, and CBP leadership can direct CBP to implement COVID19 measures.
During the review, a CBP supervisory Border Patrol agent from a southwest border processing center raised specific concerns regarding the health and safety of the CBP staff and migrants. The agent stated that because CBP does not have a COVID-19 testing policy, migrants are held in pods in close proximity with other potentially positive migrants. Moreover, migrants were sometimes in CBP custody for more than 20 days without being tested for COVID-19. The agent also expressed frustration with CBP’s lack of notification and contact tracing for CBP staff when a migrant tests positive for COVID-19 after release from CBP custody.
The watchdog is calling for stricter measures and says DHS is putting its workforce, support staff, communities, and migrants at greater risk of contracting the virus. It recommends that DHS reassess its COVID-19 response framework to identify areas for improvement to mitigate the spread of the disease while balancing its primary mission of securing the border.
DHS concurred and added that although resource constraints may present a complex and challenging operating environment, the Department will continue to implement improvement actions based on active monitoring and impact analysis of mitigation efforts.
OIG also recommended that all DHS components continue to coordinate with the DHS Chief Medical Officer and are provided the resources needed to operate safely and effectively during the COVID-19 pandemic and any future public health crisis.
DHS again concurred and said it will prioritize efforts to enhance the level of coordinated oversight and resource support for the DHS public health and medical enterprise. The estimated completion date to meet both recommendations is September 30, 2022.