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OIG Finds Migrants Were Not Tested for COVID-19 Before Boarding Domestic Commercial Flights

The Office of Inspector General (OIG)has reported on the safety measures taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to transport migrants on domestic commercial flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In fiscal year 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered more than 1.7 million migrants along the country’s southwest border. ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) transports migrants who remain in the country from CBP custody to facilities located throughout the United States; ERO may also transfer migrants between facilities during their detention. This transport occurs via several methods, including ground transit, charter flights, and domestic commercial flights.

Unlike the general public, detained migrants do not have the freedom to schedule a COVID-19 test before transport. ERO policy requires COVID-19 testing of migrants before transfer, transport, or release from ICE detention facilities. These policies do not include requirements to test family units or noncitizen unaccompanied children (UC) before transfer from CBP custody. ERO has a process for escorting UCs, but the process does not include requirements to ensure UCs are tested for COVID-19 before transport to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Chief Medical Officer (CMO) earlier recommended UCs receive a COVID-19 test before transport. However, OIG found that ICE has not implemented this recommendation.

The departmental watchdog identified numerous instances where ERO could not provide evidence that single adults, family units, and UCs were tested for COVID-19 before transport on domestic commercial flights. 

On April 1, 2021, the DHS CMO issued a memorandum to ICE and CBP recommending an immediate change to the approach for testing UCs in DHS custody. The DHS CMO recommended that CBP and ICE test UCs for COVID-19 before transport to Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities. The DHS CMO also recommended that ICE transport UCs in COVID-19–positive and COVID-19-negative cohorts.

ERO provided OIG with UC transport data for one day in September 2021 showing that ERO transported 45 UCs on domestic commercial flights to HHS facilities on that day without verifying or documenting whether the UC received a COVID-19 test before transport. Although this data represents only a small subset of UC records, OIG confirmed that ICE transported some UCs via domestic commercial flight without confirming whether the UCs were COVID-19–negative. OIG reviewed the data to determine whether UCs received a test before transport and found that 28 UCs had negative COVID-19 tests and 14 UCs did not receive a COVID-19 test before transport. Test entries for the other three UCs were blank, meaning it was not known whether they had been tested.

OIG determined that neither ERO nor CBP ensured that UCs received a COVID-19 test before transport in accordance with the DHS CMO’s recommendations. Instead, ERO officials deferred testing responsibility for UCs to HHS. However, HHS said that its contractors test UCs in only five of the nine U.S. Border Patrol sectors along the southwest border. In FY 2021, 91 percent of UCs entered through one of these five sectors. 

Additionally, OIG found that ERO did not have controls in place to ensure staff and contractors followed the requirements to test all single adult migrants for COVID-19 before transfer, transport, or release using domestic commercial flights in FY 2021. The watchdog reviewed a sample of 48 detainees and identified 24 occasions where a migrant boarded a domestic commercial flight. In 11 of those 24 occasions, ERO could not provide evidence the migrant received a COVID-19 test within three days of transport.

ERO also could not provide evidence that members of family units were tested for COVID-19 before transport from CBP custody to ICE family staging centers via domestic commercial flights in FY 2021. OIG requested testing information about 47 members of family units that ERO transported from CBP custody to ICE in FY 2021; ERO officials confirmed that they did not test these family unit members for COVID-19. Two of the 47 family unit members tested positive for COVID-19 upon intake into an ICE facility the day after transport via domestic commercial flight. ERO officials deferred to CBP for information on whether members of family units received COVID-19 tests while in CBP custody, but CBP officials told OIG that CBP does not test migrants in family units for COVID-19.

Without ensuring all migrants are COVID-19–negative and without complete records, ERO could risk exposing other migrants, ERO staff, and the general public to COVID-19 on domestic commercial flights.

In light of the findings, OIG has made four recommendations to ICE:

  • Coordinate with CBP and the DHS CMO to determine and document whether noncitizen unaccompanied children and family units should be tested for COVID-19 before transport on domestic commercial flights. If ERO determines noncitizen unaccompanied children and family units should be tested, OIG recommends that ERO develop detailed testing policies and establish controls to ensure staff and contractors follow the policies. These policies should include modes of transportation and timeframes for mandatory testing before transport.
  • Establish controls to ensure staff and contractors follow existing requirements to test single adults for COVID-19 before transfer using domestic commercial flights. 
  • Clarify existing COVID-19 testing policies to include modes of transportation and timeframes for mandatory testing before transport. 
  • Maintain complete and accurate migrant COVID-19 testing and transport records.

ICE concurred with some of the recommendations but said it is inappropriate to apply different standards for noncitizens in DHS custody and that current testing protocols and requirements are sufficient.

Read the full report at OIG

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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