Emails continue to confirm that ICE knowingly helped spread COVID-19 abroad


Internal documents obtained by a government watchdog continue to confirm that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was knowingly worsening the novel coronavirus pandemic. It wasn’t just that the agency refused to release larger numbers of immigrants and worsened this public health crisis here at home. The agency was also knowingly deporting sick immigrants, helping spread and worsen the pandemic abroad.

“The newly obtained documents contain a number of emails regarding symptoms exhibited by deportees, sent by officials whose names are for the most part fully redacted,” watchdog American Oversight said. In one email dated April 8, 2020, the State Department confirmed that three people from a March 26 deportation flight to Guatemala had tested positive. An April 13 email said the Guatemalan government confirmed that the three had then infected a combined total of 80 people in Guatemala.

ICE only worsened this crisis, documents confirmed. “On one flight that landed in Guatemala City on April 13, an individual had a ‘fever of 102 degrees’; a week later, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed that 51 of the 76 deported individuals on that flight had tested positive for Covid-19,” American Oversight said. “In data later released by the Guatemalan government and reported on by the Arizona Republic, 70 of the 76 migrants on that flight had tested positive after disembarking from the plane.”

There were warning signs early on, when the State Department said in one email that two children deported on a March 23 flight were “extremely ill.” So ill that the Guatemalan government sent one to intensive care. They eventually tested negative, according to documents. But even after early alarms, deportation flights over the next several weeks were slowed only slightly, against the wishes of the Guatemalan government—and later from human rights advocates and Congressional leaders—to stop deportation flights.

“From March 15 to April 24, ICE Air appears to have made 21 deportation flights to Guatemala; 18 to Honduras; 12 to El Salvador; six to Brazil; three each to Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; and one each to Colombia and Jamaica,” the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported in April 2020. Guatemalan officials again tried to halt deportation flights on April 16. The documents reveal the previous administration pushed for more deportations under the politically motivated Stephen Miller, who pushed the Title 42 order. By April 19, Guatemala had agreed to accept a deportation flight of unaccompanied children.

But we’ve also been long aware of the public health crisis that ICE was worsening right here at home. Rather than releasing detained immigrants as ordered by the court last year, the agency instead made a decision to transfer dozens of people from facilities in Arizona and Florida to Farmville’s Immigration Centers of America (ICA) in Virginia, where it created a COVID-19 disaster. “It has at least 268 out of around 360 detained people positive for the virus, making the jail by far the most stricken facility in ICE’s network of lockups,” Daily Beast reported in July 2020. By the next month, a federal judge had ordered the agency to stop transferring immigrants to the privately operated facility. 

Migrant Families at U.S.-Mexico Border
Migrant Families at U.S.-Mexico Border

ICE also spread the virus to other areas of the nation. Rather than releasing detained immigrants, ICE flew a number of people from facilities in New York and Pennsylvania to Texas, BuzzFeed News reported in April 2020. “The idea, it appears, was to protect these immigrants, and other detainees, from the spread of the coronavirus by reducing jail populations in the Northeast to create more ‘distancing,’” the report said. Or ICE could have just released them! Instead, “nearly two dozen of the detainees who were moved have tested positive for COVID-19,” the report said.

ICE isn’t done being COVID-19’s best friend. Even though less than 7% of immigrant detainees have been vaccinated and the agency still has no national vaccination plan in place, ICE offices are still seeking to redetain immigrants who were released under court order due to the pandemic. “In valuing their health and safety, the federal courts have recognized the humanity of these men and women,” Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition Immigration Impact Lab Program Director Adina Appelbaum said in a statement. “Re-detaining them would mean we are regressing back to a world where immigrants are not seen as human beings.”


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