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June 10, 2020

This blog is co-authored with Yolette Etienne, ActionAid Haiti Country Director, and Laura Hurtado, ActionAid Guatemala Country Director

As the United States grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing epidemic of police violence, we cannot forget about the 30,000 people still held in U.S. immigration detention centers. The Trump administration’s disastrous mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis in the United States has been well-documented. Less well-known is the fact that the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 is also catastrophic for neighboring countries. By refusing to halt mass immigrant detention and deportation, the administration is effectively exporting the virus to Central American countries. As the number of cases climb, the U.S. has the responsibility to choose a just and humane response by immediately halting deportations, releasing all immigrants from detention, and ensuring they receive the care they need.

Immigrant detention centers, like other jails, are literal breeding grounds for infectious diseases like COVID-19. But instead of ensuring mass testing and treatment for those who need it, the Trump administration continues its agenda of mass deportation. According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), by mid-May, several months into the pandemic, fewer than 8% of people in detention had been tested for COVID-19, and of those, nearly 50% had tested positive. Meanwhile, ICE violated its own quarantines on multiple occasions to move people between detention centers or into deportation proceedings.

These policies may well prove to be devastating for countries like Haiti and Guatemala. Their healthcare systems are already far overmatched by the pandemic, yet they are literally being forced to accept planeloads of COVID-positive deportees from the U.S.

On March 17, the Guatemalan government halted deportation flights due to COVID-19 fears, but under U.S. pressure it began accepting them again just two days later. Their fears were well founded: 75% of people on one deportation flight tested positive for COVID-19. In late April, deportees from the U.S. made up 20% of all coronavirus cases in Guatemala.

Similarly, Haiti asked for a suspension of deportation flights, which the Trump administration refused. At least three people tested positive for COVID-19 upon landing back in Haiti, and hundreds more have been deported in the last month without being tested.

In early May, public outrage, negative press coverage, and pressure from members of Congress forced the Trump administration to reverse a decision to deport five more COVID-positive migrants to Haiti. But testing rates in immigrant detention centers remain shockingly low, not to mention a history of medical negligence in these facilities dating back to well before the COVID-19 crisis. People released from detention report that “everybody was sick” inside the jails. Healthcare workers launched nationwide actions to demand that all immigrants being held in detention be immediately freed as a matter of public health. Given all this, it is hardly a stretch to assume that a large number of people on deportation flights are infected, official test results notwithstanding.

The continuation of mass deportation in the midst of a pandemic is incredibly irresponsible – even murderous – in terms of public health, foreign policy, and global justice.

For Haiti, management of deportees is a massive challenge even in normal conditions. The country has few resources to face the pandemic and to organize adequate testing, even absent a surge of potentially infected people being deported from the United States.

Likewise, the Guatemalan government has insufficient resources to handle the spread of COVID-19, and more cases will only make things worse. Despite protests from the Guatemalan authorities and civil society, flights from the U.S. have resumed. At least 186 deportees have tested positive for COVID-19.

In addition to being responsible for thousands of deaths in the U.S., the Trump administration is literally exporting death to our southern neighbors. Its actions, “justified” through blatant racism and white supremacy, are contributing to a spike in COVID-19 cases in Haiti and Guatemala, putting unnecessary and avoidable strain on those countries’ already fragile healthcare systems. The results will likely be untold numbers of needless deaths.

As ActionAid responds to coronavirus in more than 40 countries, we hear from our colleagues in Guatemala and Haiti how U.S. deportations are increasing exposure to COVID-19. The Trump administration must immediately halt deportations and release all detained migrants, and federal, state and local governments must make sure all immigrants, regardless of status, have access to the care they need to stay healthy during this pandemic.