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Are Officials Protecting Detained Immigrants From COVID-19?

Immigration officials say they are implementing new procedures at detention centers across the country in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, but advocates and experts worry that more needs to be done in order to protect the health of those inside.

On Thursday, a Customs and Border Protection spokesperson said in an email that the agency was using "existing procedures" to keep detainees safe from COVID-19, the disease caused by a strain of coronavirus that originated in China, as well as other communicable diseases.

The spokesperson said the agency had issued guidance to all employees "that outlines the current comprehensive use of Personal Protective Equipment including guidance regarding wearing masks in the appropriate circumstances."

Migrants "identified with symptoms [of COVID-19] may be provided with a mask and referred to CDC or EMS personnel for additional health screening," the spokesperson said. The agency is also identifying individuals who have recently traveled in China and/or Iran within the previous 14 days for enhanced health screenings.

After those screenings, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention personnel will make the determination as to "whether any additional measures must be taken."

The spokesperson did not share any additional measures had been put in place at detention centers regarding the COVID-19 outbreak. CBP did not respond to questions about whether any detainees or Border Patrol staff at its various detention centers had been tested for COVID-19, or if any had tested positive.

Experts and advocates worry that, despite these measures, border officials — including those with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which did not respond to a request for comment for this article — still aren't doing nearly enough to prevent and outbreak from spreading among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants currently detained in their facilities.

In light of the COVID-19 outbreak, for instance, the CDC has recommended that households routinely clean high-touch surfaces such as countertops and doorknobs, and that businesses provide disposable wipes so that employees can keep areas clean. The CDC also recommends infected individuals in a household use a separate bathroom, if possible.

Neither CBP nor ICE responded to questions about if and how they are implementing those recommendations inside their respective detention facilities, or if they have the capacity to quarantine individuals who become infected with COVID-19.

Some have noted that ICE specifically has been silent on the matter thus far and has not issued any news or press releases about the coronavirus or COVID-19 at all.

"ICE and CBP must immediately issue public statements outlining its plans to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in its jails and prisons," Rebekah Entralgo, spokesperson for Freedom for Immigrants, said in a email on Thursday. "The agencies must also reassure individuals that they can access resources and care without fear."

Entralgo noted that detained immigrants, who may face crowded conditions, are at higher risk of catching and then spreading the virus.

More than 100 people in the United States have been infected so far, and nearly a dozen have died.

"CBP needs to be doing more than just handing out masks," Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), a staunch critic of Trump's immigration policies, said in an email this week. CBP, she added, "should think about the role it is playing in actually exacerbating this pandemic because they are putting Donald Trump's politically motivated war on immigrants above the actual needs of the country and the world."

Some experts' concerns are based on previous investigations that uncovered numerous health problems at migrant detention centers, including overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

The Trump administration's own inspectors reported last May that detainees at an ICE detention facility near El Paso, Texas, were "wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks" and observed some detainees "standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, thus limiting access to the toilets."

The El Paso Del Norte Processing Center has a maximum capacity of 125 people, but inspectors reported border officials there had crammed more than 900 into the space.

Thirty-two immigrants at CBP's Central Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, were also found to be suffering from communicable diseases last year and were quarantined. The discovery was made following the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, who had been detained at the center and tested positive for influenza.

Attorneys said later that year that conditions in the McAllen facility were so dirty and overcrowded that mothers had started saving bottled water to mix baby formula because the building's water tasted "like bleach."

One lawyer told the Texas Tribune that immigrants there weren't receiving adequate medical treatment and that some of the mothers, "unable to clean themselves," had resorted to "wiping their children's runny noses or vomit with their own clothing." Cups and baby bottles were shared, because there simply weren't enough to go around.

"Basic hygiene just doesn't exist there. It's a health crisis … a manufactured health crisis," the lawyer said.

At least seven children have died in U.S. custody since 2017, several from diseases like the flu.

The Trump administration has declined to address the problem head on. In December, Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security came under fire after officials refused to offer flu shots to migrant detainees, even when they were offered at no charge by a group of doctors.

"Of course Border Patrol isn't going to let a random group of radical political activists show up and start injecting people with drugs," a DHS spokesperson tweeted at the time.

As the New York Times noted, the CDC had warned earlier last year that immigrants 6 months and older should be given the flu vaccine "at the earliest point of entry" to prevent the spread of such communicable diseases while in custody.

Experts worry that detention facilities like the ones maintained by CBP and ICE are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks like COVID-19 due to crowded conditions, especially as border officials are slow to act.

"Detention facilities are breeding grounds for infection," Wendy Parmet, director of the Center for Health Policy and Law at Northeastern University School of Law, said in an email this week.

Parmet recently joined 700 law, public health, and human rights experts to send a letter to the Trump administration on how to enact an effective COVID-19 response.

"Most importantly, the facilities need more medical staff, and the staff need training on how to reduce the spread of infection, and protective equipment to keep themselves and migrants safe," she explained this week.

Additionally, she said, "ICE needs to administer flu vaccines, to reduce the overall incidence of respiratory diseases."

She added that one of the best measures would be to reduce the number of people in detention centers.

Some detention facilities have become less crowded due to the Trump administration's controversial Remain in Mexico policy, which forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico rather than the United States ahead of their scheduled court date. The policy, however, has created health risks for the more than 55,000 immigrants in makeshift communities on the Mexican side of the southern border who are waiting to argue their cases.

In November, the Associated Press reported that people there were forced to bathe and wash their clothes in the Rio Grande, which is contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria. Doctors without Borders identified numerous health risks as a result of those conditions, including diarrhea and asthma.

"Speaking from having seen other humanitarian crises in the world, this is one of the worst situations that I've seen," Helen Perry, a nurse practitioner and operations director for medical nonprofit Global Response Management, told the AP. "It is only going to get worse, and it is going to get worse rapidly."

Earlier this week, Trump said his administration may shut down the southern border to prevent further spread of COVID-19, even though the World Health Organization reports far more confirmed cases in Canada (30) and the United States (129) than Mexico, which has reported five cases so far.

"We are thinking about the southern border," he said. "We are looking at that very strongly."

The move appeared to be another attempt by the Trump administration to implement anti-immigrant policies under the guise of national security, rather than a plan to prevent further infections.

As COVID-19 continues to spread, the administration will need to focus more substantial efforts on migrants exposed to dangerous conditions, both those forced back across the border and the many thousands still in CBP and ICE custody.

"People residing in close quarters, such as immigrant jails and prisons, are particularly vulnerable to public health crises. So too are undocumented immigrants who may go without accessing health care in this age of increased immigration enforcement," Entralgo said this week.

In a column for STAT News on Wednesday, Parmet noted that, aside from simply screening those entering detention facilities, CBP and ICE, as well as their parent agency, DHS, should work specifically to improve facility conditions and "relax" rigorous immigration policies like Remain in Mexico that could make things worse.

"The Department of Homeland Security must work to improve health care in detention facilities and relax the policies that are adding to crowding both north and south of the border," she wrote.

"During a pandemic, overcrowding and unsafe conditions not only pose a risk for migrants, but can endanger the health of everyone."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.

Democrats Demand Border Patrol Explain Deaths Of Migrant Children In Custody

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

After a ProPublica investigation into the death of a teenager in Border Patrol custody, House Democrats are ramping up pressure on the Trump administration to explain how six migrant children died after entering the U.S.

“I find it appalling that (Customs and Border Protection) has still not taken responsibility for the deaths of children in their care,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

Thompson said that while some of the children’s deaths may not have been preventable, Customs and Border Protection, the federal agency that first deals with children who cross the border, seems “all too quick to pat themselves on the back for their handling of children last year. These deaths happened under their watch. I remain skeptical that real changes have been made.”

The Homeland Security border subcommittee will hold a hearing Tuesday to examine the administration’s efforts to treat sick migrant children. The six who died in government custody between September 2018 and May 2019 were the first such deaths in a decade.

ProPublica’s December investigation into the death of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who died in a South Texas Border Patrol cell, raised concerns about actions by Border Patrol agents and contract medical personnel and whether the agency was truthful about the circumstances of the teenager’s death. The boy died on the floor of his cell on May 20, and a surveillance video obtained by ProPublica showed he was left alone for hours as his illness worsened.

Carlos was the last of six children to die. Three children died from flu-related complications, one died of a massive bacterial infection and two died from chronic conditions they had before crossing the border, according to autopsies and other medical reports.

A spokesperson for CBP, the Border Patrol’s parent agency, said the department has made sweeping changes at the border in the past year. About 300 contract medical personnel work any given day at 40 border stations, up from 20 trained medical providers in December 2018, the spokesperson said.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General in late December issued one-page findings on the December 2018 deaths of two Guatemalan children. Investigators “found no misconduct or malfeasance by DHS personnel” in the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8.

“The inspector general’s one-page summaries on the investigation into the December 2018 deaths are clearly insufficient. Congress has yet to get a full accounting of how the investigation took place and how the inspector general came to its conclusions,” Thompson said.

The inspector general rejected Thompson’s criticism, saying the agency has fully briefed his staff on the investigations.

“We stand by our investigations. On Jan. 10, 2019, the Office of the Inspector General provided the Committee on Homeland Security staff a comprehensive briefing on both investigations and our conclusions. We have also provided the complete reports of investigation to the committee, per the chairman’s request,” inspector general spokeswoman Erica Paulson said. She said complete reports can’t be made public because of privacy laws.

A committee spokesman said the inspector general’s office has declined to testify at Tuesday’s hearing.

Jakelin died of streptococcal sepsis two days after she and her father crossed the border in remote southwest New Mexico. Felipe died of flu complications six days after he and his father crossed the border in El Paso, Texas.

The DHS inspector general continues to investigate Carlos’ death. He died of flu complications in a cell in Weslaco, Texas, a week after crossing the border.

The DHS inspector general is not investigating the deaths of three children who died after being released from Border Patrol custody, a CBP spokesperson said.

Two of those children — a 10-year-old Salvadoran girl in September 2018 and a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in April 2019 — died after being sent from Border Patrol to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services. No autopsies were conducted, but the cause of death for each was listed as a chronic condition that predated their arrival.

An HHS spokesman didn’t respond to questions about whether that agency was investigating the deaths of those two children.

The sixth death involved a 2-year-old Guatemalan boy who died in El Paso in May, several weeks after he and his mother crossed the border. Both were released from custody while he was in the hospital. An autopsy found that the boy, Wilmer Josue Ramirez Vasquez, died of the flu and other respiratory and intestinal infections.

Four of the six children who died were taken into custody by the Border Patrol’s El Paso sector. Rep. Veronica Escobar, an El Paso Democrat, said Trump administration officials have refused to provide her with information on the deaths of the migrant children, citing the need to protect internal investigations.

Escobar in July asked DHS and CBP to preserve videos of border detention facilities since December 2018 and asked for copies of videos of the detention of children and adults who died in custody. In November, Acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan sent a letter to Escobar telling her that videos are routinely erased.

Morgan said the agency’s policy “does not specifically outline video recording standards.” He said that because of limited storage capacity, the agencies’ video systems overwrite recordings every 30 to 60 days.

Morgan said videos are preserved for investigations “where a death in custody occurred in a CBP controlled space.” Carlos was the only child to die in a CBP facility; the others died after being transferred to outside medical facilities.

“It’s disappointing, obviously, that my request that the videos be preserved isn’t being followed,” Escobar said. She added that other records of the deaths haven’t been provided by the Trump administration to Congress, which may have to use its subpoena power to obtain them.

ProPublica obtained video of Carlos’ death through a request under Texas open records laws to the Weslaco Police Department, which briefly investigated the boy’s death. CBP provided video of Carlos’ cell from the morning of his death to Weslaco police, though the video included an unexplained gap of more than four hours.

On Dec. 30, CBP released a new medical directive on the care of migrants in custody. The policy replaces an interim plan created in January 2019 in the wake of the deaths of Jakeline and Felipe.

“We take our responsibility to provide adequate health care to everyone in our custody extremely seriously and will continue to make adjustments and improvements as the situation changes,” the agency said in a statement.

But a leading public health expert said the medical directive is so vague that it is essentially meaningless.

“What they’re saying in the press statement makes it sound like things are moving and going on, but in the official document there’s nothing there to be able to parse out to say what are they truly going to do,” said Dr. Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at Johns Hopkins University.

The directive calls for agents to tell migrants to report if they’re feeling sick. In a second phase, Border Patrol agents would provide a health interview to all migrants under 18. In a third phase, if funding is available, all children under 12 would get a medical assessment.

In the fiscal year 2020 funding bill for DHS that passed in December, Congress directed CBP to develop a medical policy that included clear metrics to determine if detention conditions were creating a public health crisis. The “explanatory statement” for the appropriations bill also calls on CBP to develop a “peer review process for deaths in custody.” The Dec. 30 medical directive doesn’t mention metrics or a review process when migrants die in custody.

The CBP spokesperson said the agency “is working with DHS headquarters, multiple federal agencies and other stakeholders to address the items noted in the FY20 appropriations bill.”

Border Patrol Agents Circulate ‘Challenge Coin’ Mocking Care for Migrant Kids

An unofficial commemorative coin has been circulating among Border Patrol agents at the U.S./Mexico border, mocking the task of caring for migrant children and other duties that have fallen to agents as families cross into the U.S.

On the front, the coin declares “KEEP THE CARAVANS COMING” under an image of a massive parade of people carrying a Honduran flag — a caricature of the “caravan” from last fall, which started in Honduras and attracted thousands of people as it moved north. (While the caravan included many women and children, the only visible figures on the coin appear to be adult men.)

The coin’s reverse side features the Border Patrol logo and three illustrations: a Border Patrol agent bottle-feeding an infant; an agent fingerprinting a teen boy wearing a backwards baseball cap; and a U.S. Border Patrol van. The text along the edge reads “FEEDING ** PROCESSING ** HOSPITAL ** TRANSPORT.”

The coin appears to poke fun at the fact that many border agents are no longer out patrolling and instead are now caring for and processing migrants — including families and children.

Government officials told ProPublica the coin was not approved or paid for by the government, unlike official “challenge coins” that go through an agency approval process. One Customs and Border Protection official, who was not authorized to give his name, characterized the coin as “something that somebody’s doing on their free time” — comparing it to woodworking. “A lot of the agents have little hobbies on the side, they build little wooden figures that they have at their homes,” the official said.

It’s not clear who created the coin or how widely it’s been circulated among border agents. But Border Patrol agents in California and Texas — on opposite ends of the U.S./Mexico border — had seen the coin circulated at their workplaces. One of the agents received a coin in April when a colleague brought several to pass around at the office; the other was shown an online order form for the coins by a colleague at work.

Both said the coins were promoted via the secret Facebook group for current and former Border Patrol officials that, as ProPublica recently detailed, included racist and violent posts.

The coin is part of a tradition of unofficial “challenge coins” — which generally outnumber official ones — which are common in the military and law enforcement as a way for members to celebrate achievements and build camaraderie.

But outside observers found this particular coin anything but harmless.

Theresa Cardinal Brown, who worked at CBP under the Bush and Obama administrations, said that the coin was evidence (like the 10-15 Facebook group) of “reflexive dehumanization” by Border Patrol agents, and that the “tolerance for shenanigans” by supervisors and leadership had gone too far. “You have to say, ‘This is affecting the integrity and authority of us all.’”

The coin appears to have been designed, ordered and distributed months into the surge of Central American families at the border. Coins were being distributed to agents by late April, before the current wave of public attention and outrage over conditions for migrants in Border Patrol custody.

Customs and Border Protection officials said they did not know about the coin until contacted by ProPublica. They said they would investigate it for potential trademark violation since the coin includes the Border Patrol’s logo.

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has a firm policy on the use and production of challenge coins bearing CBP identifiers,” a CBP official said, including the U,S. Border Patrol logo. “The coin in question is not an officially approved CBP coin. CBP intends to investigate the matter and will make a determination when all the facts are known.”

However, officials implied that if the coin had not used the official logo, it would be beyond their control. “If it’s something that somebody’s doing on their free time,” said the official who asked not to be named, it is not something the agency can control.

Hector Garza of the National Border Patrol Council, the union representing Border Patrol agents, said he had not seen the coin either. When shown pictures of it by ProPublica, and in response to follow-up questions, he said, “I have no thoughts about the coin.”

Challenge coins have spread throughout the federal government, but are especially popular within Border Patrol. They depict individual offices or stations or particular missions. If official visitors come by to tour a station, a coin may be presented.

In this case, the “mission” being mockingly commemorated is the unprecedented amount of migrant care and processing Border Patrol agents did in the spring of this year.

Taking care of migrants (including children) in short-term custody is part of the Border Patrol’s job. When the intake system for migrant children is overwhelmed, as it was in 2014 and has been again in 2019, Border Patrol often holds children for longer than the 72 hours prescribed by the federal Flores settlement (a court agreement that governs the treatment of children in immigration custody), often in spaces not designed for children — or anyone. In recent weeks the government has greatly reduced the number of children in Border Patrol custody, thanks in large part to funding from Congress that expanded the intake system’s capacity.

Some agents say that childcare and support have an opportunity cost: Any time an agent spends driving a van full of children to a child-only facility, for example, is time not spent “in the field” apprehending people who are trying to get away.

“Us caring for kids and families, that’s not the frustration,” Garza said. “Drugs coming into the country? That is a frustration. People with criminal records coming in and us not being able to catch them? That is a frustration.”

That tradeoff appears to be fueling the emotions expressed by the coin — with the back side depicting the tasks that agents must do instead of being out “on the line,” and the front side referring to the legal “loopholes” that make it harder to detain and deport migrants under 18 and families.

One Border Patrol agent, when asked about morale among agents detailed to care and transport, replied with a photo of a dumpster floating down a flooded river.

 

 

Border Patrol Condemns Secret Facebook Group, But Reveals Few Specifics

 

Long known for its insular culture and tendency toward secrecy, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency is saying little in the aftermath of news reports exposing a vulgar and hateful Facebook group for current and retired Border Patrol agents, including supervisors.

While CBP officials have publicly condemned the offensive social media posts, they’ve disclosed few details about the steps the agency has taken to identify employees who behaved inappropriately online and hold them accountable.

The agency, which is responsible for policing the nation’s borders and official ports of entry, declined to say how many employees CBP has disciplined or how many remain under investigation.

In response to questions from ProPublica, a CBP spokesperson would only say that “several” employees had been placed on restricted duty as a result of postings in the three-year-old Facebook group, and that so far no one had been suspended from the patrol, a more serious disciplinary action. The agency would not say whether the agents now on restricted duty are allowed to have contact with the public, and it refused to answer questions about specific agents who appear to have made posts celebrating sexual violence and demeaning migrants and women.

The “majority of employees who have been positively identified” as being active in the Facebook group have been issued letters instructing them stop posting objectionable material, said the spokesperson, who declined to specify how many people had received the letters, described as “cease and desist” notices.

“This secrecy is unacceptable,” said Joaquin Castro, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and representative for San Antonio. “This secrecy is dangerous to human life. CBP is perhaps the least transparent law enforcement agency in the country.”

ProPublica last week revealed the existence of the secret 9,500-member Facebook group, called “I’m 10-15,” a reference to the Border Patrol code for “alien in custody.” In the private group, current and former Border Patrol agents, including supervisors, mocked dead migrants, called congresswomen “scum buckets,” and uploaded misogynistic images, including an illustration of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a harsh critic of CBP, engaged in oral sex with a migrant in a detention facility. A later story by The Intercept published additional graphic posts from the group and information about its members.

CBP policies bar employees from making “abusive, derisive, profane, or harassing statements or gestures” about any person or group on private or public social media.

Among those who apparently made egregious posts is Thomas Hendricks, a 20-year veteran of the Border Patrol who serves as a supervisor of the Calexico station, a desert outpost in Southern California’s Imperial County. Hendricks — or someone using his Facebook account — uploaded a photo illustration of President Donald Trump forcing the head of Ocasio-Cortez toward his crotch. The image was accompanied by a cryptic message that appeared to refer to prior issues within the patrol: “That’s right bitches. The masses have spoken and today democracy won. I have returned.”

Hendricks did not respond to requests for comment from ProPublica.

An agent at the Alamogordo station in New Mexico, Mario Marcus Ponce, apparently described Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Veronica Escobar of El Paso, Texas, both Democrats, as “hoes” in a discussion in the Facebook group. Ponce did not answer calls and text messages from ProPublica.

CBP would not discuss the current status of Hendricks and Ponce or two other agents identified by ProPublica. “We cannot comment on individual cases,” the CBP spokesperson said.

Unlike many big city police departments, the Border Patrol generally divulges little information about agents found to have engaged in misconduct or those involved in shooting incidents. At times, the agency has refused even to reveal the names of agents facing trial on criminal corruption charges.

“They are not used to being questioned. They are not used to be scrutinized,” said Josiah Heyman, an anthropologist at the University of Texas at El Paso who has been studying the border since 1982.

The Facebook group, he said, is “an indicator of broader problems” within the Border Patrol. “There is an attitude within CBP and Border Patrol that everybody crossing the border is invading the United States and coming to do bad things,” he said.

While Heyman noted that there is little solid statistical data on the views held by Border Patrol agents, he pointed to a survey of approximately 1,100 migrants who’d been deported to Mexico. Nearly a quarter of the respondents said they’d been verbally abused by U.S. government employees, primarily Border Patrol. “It is an enormous number,” said Heyman, director of the school’s Center for Inter-American and Border Studies.

In a statement issued last week, Border Patrol Chief Carla Provost said the Facebook images and comments aren’t representative of the patrol as a whole. “These posts are completely inappropriate and contrary to the honor and integrity I see—and expect—from our agents day in and day out,” she said. “Any employees found to have violated our standards of conduct will be held accountable.”

At least two oversight bodies are now looking into the conduct of Border Patrol agents on social media. One inquiry is being led by CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility, essentially an internal affairs unit staffed with professional investigators.

In Congress, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, led by Maryland Democrat Elijah Cummings has opened an investigation and committee staffers are currently gathering facts. Cummings has requested that Kevin McAleenan, the acting chief of the Department of Homeland Security — CBP’s parent organization — testify before the committee this week about “racist, sexist, and xenophobic posts by Border Patrol agents,” as well as reports of inhumane conditions and severe overcrowding at CBP detention facilities.

The congressman has also instructed Facebook to turn over digital evidence related to the group. “The Committee requests that you preserve all documents, communications, and other data related to the ‘I’m 10-15’ group. This includes log files and metadata,” Cummings wrote in a letter to Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg.

At the House Homeland Security Committee, chair Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, has called on the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security to mount an investigation into the Facebook group.

The inspector general’s office would not comment on whether it has opened an inquiry.

For his part, Castro said he intends to ask some questions of his own. “I am going to set up a call with Secretary McAleenan to have a conversation about the discipline and accountability process within DHS,” Castro, a Democrat, said. “I don’t know if there is any accountability. I don’t know if there is any discipline.”