Immigration officials debunk GOP claims of coronavirus at the southern border

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There are currently no detainees at ICE or Customs and Border Protection facilities who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Trump administration immigration officials this week appeared to contradict claims by GOP lawmakers that immigrants coming into the country through the southern border or elsewhere were a threat because they could be carrying the new coronavirus.

Federal officials said that, as of Tuesday, there were no cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, among those being held in immigrant detention facilities in the United States.

"Currently, there are no detainees in ICE custody with confirmed COVID-19," a spokesperson with Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in an email Tuesday.

As of March 3, four detainees in ICE custody had been tested.

On Monday, a Customs and Border Patrol spokesperson confirmed in a phone call that no detainees in CBP custody had tested positive for COVID-19. The spokesperson was unable to say how many detainees had been tested.

Republican lawmakers have been fearmongering for weeks about the threat immigrants pose to people living in the United States.

On Sunday, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) warned that "it is not unlikely that people from other countries afflicted by the [corona]virus are illegally slipping through our border today."

Donald Trump too has used the growing epidemic to tout the need for his long-promised wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"We need the Wall more than ever!" Trump tweeted Tuesday morning in response to a separate tweet about the COVID-19 epidemic.

Back in January, a pro-Trump group used racist tropes and described Chinese people more broadly as "disease carriers" when writing about the new coronavirus outbreak.

While there have been no confirmed COVID-19 cases thus far, detainees are still at high risk for outbreaks of communicable diseases due to the cramped and often unsanitary conditions in which they are forced to live.

"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 earlier in March. Parmet said detention 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."

Spokespeople for both ICE and CBP said both agencies are working closely with CDC in order to keep detainees safe.

"ICE continues to incorporate CDC's COVID-19 guidance, which is built upon the already established infectious disease monitoring and management protocols currently in use by the agency," the agency spokesperson said Tuesday.

If detainees present with COVID-19 symptoms, 80% of ICE facilities are equipped with airborne infection isolation rooms. Detainees with severe symptoms will be transported to hospitals for care, following CDC guidelines for notifying medical personnel of a potential COVID-19-infected person before arrival.

A CBP spokesperson said that CDC guidance has been sent to all detention facilities. Last week, 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."

Neither ICE and CBP released information about any additional deep cleaning or disinfecting taking place at detention facilities since the outbreak began.

In the past, many ICE and CBP detention centers were revealed to be overcrowded and unsanitary.

Last May, inspectors reported that detainees at an El Paso-area ICE detention facility were "wearing soiled clothing for days or weeks" and found some detainees "standing on toilets in the cells to make room and gain breathing space, thus limiting access to the toilets."

The Texas Tribune reported in June that migrants at a CBP processing facility near McAllen, Texas, weren't receiving adequate medical treatment. A lawyer for the migrants said some of the mothers, "unable to clean themselves," had resorted to "wiping their children's runny noses or vomit with their own clothing."

In December, Border Patrol and the Department of Homeland Security were criticized after officials refused to offer flu shots to migrant detainees, even when offered at no charge by a group of doctors.

Linking unfounded border concerns to the coronavirus outbreak appears to be part of a larger scheme to enact racist and xenophobic policies under the guise of national security.

Earlier this month, Trump said he might shut down the southern border to prevent further spread of COVID-19, despite the fact that the United States has more than 67 times as many confirmed cases as Mexico, according to the World Health Organization. In the past, Trump has invoked national security in an attempt to ban Muslims from entering the United States.

In an email Tuesday, Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA), the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress and chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, slammed Trump's fearmongering about immigrants amid the outbreak.

"From the first day of his campaign, when he declared Mexican immigrants to be rapists and murderers, to the State of the Union, when he used one incident to paint all immigrants as criminals, creating fear of immigrants has been central to Donald Trump’s bigoted agenda. And Congressional Republicans have been willing partners," she said.

"First they tried to claim that ten terrorists a day are crossing the border, a claim without any substance. Now, they’re trying to claim immigrants are bringing disease — another claim that has been proven false. Instead of spreading lies, xenophobia, and hate, Republicans should put facts first and work with us on common sense immigration reform that actually helps the country."

CDC guidance for preventing the spread of COVID-19 includes frequent hand-washing with soap and warm water, regularly disinfecting high-touch surfaces, and staying home when sick.

This article has been updated to include additional comment from California Rep. Judy Chu.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.