Activists complain of COVID-19 spread from illegal immigrants pushed back across border

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Immigrant-rights activists said the U.S. is spreading COVID-19 south of the border by immediately expelling illegal immigrants back to Mexico, saying the way they are handled means one infected migrant can expose dozens of others.

Visiting a shelter in northern Mexico the activists from Lawyers for Civil Rights said they found a group of about 70 migrants recently ousted from the U.S., and at least two of them had COVID-19 when they were released by American authorities.

Since the group was transported together back to the border for expulsion, “the entire group was exposed to COVID-19, including children and breastfeeding infants,” the activists said.

Expelled migrants were held in overcrowded facilities while being processed in the U.S. and weren’t tested for the coronavirus. Charities are stepping in to do that testing in Mexico, the activists said.

There are so many people surging north — and being pushed back — that it’s overwhelming both sides of the U.S.-Mexico boundary. In Sonora, Mexico, the shelters are full and people are sleeping in cemeteries, the lawyers reported.

“The pain and suffering are palpable. The asylum application process must be restored,” said Ivan Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights. “We are documenting abuses and bringing them to light to hold U.S. officials accountable for abominable conditions at the border.” 

Their complaints echo what conservative critics have been saying for months about the surge of unauthorized migrants and their potential to be a vector for the coronavirus to spread.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas told Congress last month that U.S. officials were finding one in five migrants testing positive for COVID-19.

With the exception of one region of Texas where the government has a contract for testing, Homeland Security has generally relied on local governments and charities to test illegal immigrants after they are caught and released by the Border Patrol. The local officials are reimbursed by the federal government for the effort.

But the arrangement has a number of flaws, not least of which is the incubation period of the disease. An infected individual transported to a local site may infect others on the same bus or van, but they wouldn’t test positive immediately and would be released into the community.

Local organizations also say that while they can offer beds to quarantine the sick, they don’t have the power to enforce a quarantine, and some COVID-positive migrants are walking off even though they are aware that they could spread the disease.

The Biden administration has kept in place a weaker version of the Title 42 pandemic health order the Trump administration put in place, which allows unauthorized border crossers to be quickly expelled back to Mexico.

In December, the last full month under President Trump, 85% of the 71,142 people caught by Border Patrol agents along the southern border were expelled using Title 42.

In the just-released numbers for September, under President Biden, it was just 54% of the 185,515 people caught.

Conservative critics say the expulsion power should be used more frequently to block people from entering. They say if people don’t get caught and released into the U.S., it would help cut down on the number of people coming in the first place.

The lawyers’ group, though, says the Title 42 powers prevent vulnerable people from claiming asylum. They want the Biden administration to cancel the expulsions altogether.

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