The Office of Inspector General (OIG) has reported on the security measures taken by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to transport migrants on domestic commercial flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In fiscal 2021, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) encountered more than 1.7 million migrants along the country’s southwest border. ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) transports migrants who remain in the country from CBP detention to facilities in the United States; ERO can also transfer migrants between facilities during their detention. This transportation is accomplished through multiple methods, including ground transit, charter flights, and domestic commercial flights.
Unlike the general public, detained migrants do not have the freedom to arrange a COVID-19 test prior to transport. The ERO policy requires migrants to be tested for COVID-19 prior to transfer, transport or release from ICE prisons. These guidelines do not include requirements for testing family units or unaccompanied children without citizenship (UC) prior to release from CBP custody. ERO has a procedure for escorting UCs, but the procedure does not include requirements to ensure UCs are tested for COVID-19 prior to transport to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) chief medical officer (CMO) previously recommended that UCs receive a COVID-19 test prior to transport. However, OIG found that ICE did not implement this recommendation.
The department’s watchdog identified numerous instances where ERO was unable to demonstrate that single adults, family units and UCs were tested for COVID-19 prior to being transported on domestic commercial flights.
On April 1, 2021, the CMO of DHS issued a memorandum to ICE and CBP recommending an immediate change in the approach to testing UCs in DHS custody. The DHS CMO recommended that CBP and ICE test UCs for COVID-19 prior to transport to Health and Human Services (HHS) facilities. The DHS CMO also recommended that ICE transport UCs in COVID-19 positive and COVID-19 negative cohorts.
ERO provided the OIG with UC transportation data for one day in September 2021, showing that ERO transported 45 UCs on commercial domestic flights to HHS facilities that day without verifying or documenting whether the UC prior to the transportation had received a COVID-19 test. Although this data represents only a small subset of UC records, OIG confirmed that ICE carried some UCs on domestic commercial flights without confirming whether the UCs were COVID-19 negative. The OIG reviewed the data to determine whether UCs had received a pre-transport test and found that 28 UCs had negative COVID-19 tests and 14 UCs did not receive a pre-transport COVID-19 test. Test entries for the other three UCs were empty, ie it was not known whether they were tested.
The OIG found that neither ERO nor CBP arranged for UCs to receive a COVID-19 test prior to transportation, as recommended by the DHS CMO. Instead, ERO officials transferred testing responsibility for UCs to HHS. However, HHS said its contractors are only testing UCs in five of the nine U.S. Border Patrol sectors along the southwestern border. In fiscal 2021, 91 percent of UCs entered through one of these five sectors.
In addition, the OIG found that ERO had not established controls to ensure employees and contractors were following requirements to test all single adult migrants for COVID-19 prior to transfer, transport or release on domestic commercial flights in fiscal year 2021. The watchdog reviewed a sample of 48 detainees and identified 24 instances where a migrant boarded a domestic commercial flight. In 11 of those 24 cases, ERO could not prove that the migrant had received a COVID-19 test within three days of transport.
ERO was also unable to provide evidence that members of family units were tested for COVID-19 prior to being transported from CBP custody to ICE family staging centers on commercial domestic flights in fiscal year 2021. OIG requested test information on 47 family unit members who transported ERO from CBP custody to ICE in FY2021; ERO officials confirmed they did not test these family members for COVID-19. Two of the 47 family members tested positive for COVID-19 upon admission to an ICE facility the day after being transported on a domestic commercial flight. ERO officials reached out to CBP for information on whether family unit members received COVID-19 testing while in CBP custody, but CBP officials told OIG that CBP did not screen migrants in family units for COVID -19 tests.
Without ensuring all migrants are COVID-19 negative and without full records, ERO could risk exposing other migrants, ERO staff and the general public to COVID-19 on domestic commercial flights.
In light of the findings, the OIG made four recommendations to ICE:
- Coordinate with CBP and DHS CMO to determine and document whether unaccompanied children and non-citizen family units should be tested for COVID-19 prior to transportation on domestic commercial flights. If ERO determines that unaccompanied children and non-citizen family units should be tested, OIG recommends that ERO develop detailed testing guidelines and implement controls to ensure employees and contractors follow the guidelines. These guidelines should include modes of transport and timeframes for mandatory pre-transport testing.
- Establish controls to ensure employees and contractors follow existing requirements to test single adults for COVID-19 prior to transfer on domestic commercial flights.
- Refine existing COVID-19 testing policies to include modes of transport and timeframes for mandatory pre-transport testing.
- Maintain complete and accurate COVID-19 testing and transportation records for migrants.
ICE agreed with some of the recommendations, but said it was inappropriate to apply different standards for non-citizens in DHS custody and that current testing protocols and requirements are sufficient.
Read the full report at OIG