The IG report said it identified “numerous instances” where ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) “could not provide evidence that single adults, family units, and [unaccompanied children] were tested for COVID-19 before transport on domestic commercial flights,” the report says.
ICE uses flights to transport migrants from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody to other facilities (or to Health and Human Services care for unaccompanied children) across the country, and can include ground transit, charter flights or domestic flights. For single adults, ERO detains them at 127 detention facilities across the country before they are either removed or released into the U.S.
“A migrant’s journey, which by definition includes crossing an international border from a foreign country, may include several transfers between multiple Federal entities and facilities within the United States,” the report said. “Migrants traveling on domestic commercial flights while in DHS custody may be in close proximity to other migrants and to the general public.”
Despite being subject to a number of requirements for testing, the IG found that ERO did not ensure all migrants were tested before being transported on domestic commercial flights.
“This occurred because ERO’s policies are unclear and ERO does not have controls in place to enforce them. Additionally, some of these policies do not apply to [unaccompanied children], who are not detained in ICE facilities,” the report said.
The audit faulted ERO for having incomplete records for migrant transports, specifically for unaccompanied children. The report found that, in the case of unaccompanied children, ERO officials deferred responsibility to Health and Human Services, and also did not record which children HHS had tested — instead using word of mouth to determine which migrants were positive.
For single adults, in a sample of 24 migrants who boarded a domestic flight, the IG found that ERO could not provide evidence that 11 migrants had received a test within three days of transport. For UACs, the report said that in one day in September, ERO moved 45 children on domestic commercial flights to HHS facilities without verifying whether they were tested for COVID-19.
“These practices risk exposing other migrants, ERO staff, and the general public to COVID-19. It is imperative that ERO establish and enforce policies and procedures to mitigate public health concerns regarding COVID-19 or other future pandemics,” the report said.
The IG issued a number of recommendations, including more detailed coordination between DHS agencies and more detailed and clarified testing policies, as well as controls to ensure staff and contractors follow existing testing requirements. It also recommends that agencies maintain “complete and accurate” migrant COVID-19 testing and transport records.
In a response to the OIG, ICE said it agrees “with the intent of OIG’s findings and considers a number of proposed actions regarding the testing of noncitizen family units or unaccompanied children already addressed.”
“ICE is committed to ensuring noncitizens in its custody reside in safe, secure and humane environments, and under appropriate conditions of confinements,” acting Chief of Staff Jason Houser said in a written response. “As such, ICE has implemented, executed, and ensures healthcare protocols and testing procedures for COVID-19 in alignment with the CDC’s Guidance on Management of COVID-19 in Correctional and Detention Facilities.”
The report comes as the Biden administration has been blocked from ending Title 42 public health order expulsions. The order, which has been in place since March 2020, is being used to expel a majority of migrants at the border due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC had said that it was appropriate to end the order, but a federal judge sided with a Republican lawsuit and imposed a preliminary injunction. The lawsuit said that ending the order would exacerbate the massive crisis at the border and increase costs such as healthcare and education for the states signed onto the lawsuit.