Hundreds deported by U.S. to Guatemala during pandemic had COVID-19, documents show
On Monday, April 13, a chartered flight from the United States landed at La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City. The flight, which originated in Brownsville, Texas, carried 76 people being deported to Guatemala.
It was one of the daily U.S. deportation flights that land like clockwork at a military base on the backside of the airport near the heart of Guatemala City, the nation’s capital and largest city.
But that particular deportation flight would rock the Guatemalan government: 70 of the 76 deportees, or 92%, tested positive for COVID-19 after getting off the plane, data from the Guatemalan government shows.
It wasthe first time 100% of the people arriving on a U.S. deportation flight were tested for COVID-19.
Later the same day, a second U.S. deportation flight arrived from Texas. Twenty-five of the 106 deportees aboard were tested for COVID-19. Twenty of those tested positive, or 80%.
Two days later, a U.S. deportation flight with106 deportees arrived in Guatemala from Texas. Ninety-five deportees were tested. Half tested positive.
The shockingly high number of deportees who tested positive on those three deportation flights in mid-April — 137 in all — confirmed the fears of some Guatemalan officials: The U.S. under the Trump administration was exporting the coronavirus to Guatemala.
The high numbers also indicated that deportees who had arrived from the U.S. on previous deportation flights in April and March also may have been infected with COVID-19 — and then unknowingly carried the virus they had contracted in the U.S., mostly likely in crowded immigration detention centers, back to their families and communities in Guatemala, including to remote rural areas of the country where the majority of migrants are from.
Guatemalan data obtained by The Arizona Republic shows that the U.S. deported nearly 6,000 people during a six-month period from March to September, including 331 who tested positive for COVD-19 after arriving in Guatemala.
Some of the U.S. deportation flights originated in Mesa.
An analysis of the data also shows that deportations from the U.S. helped fuel the spread of the coronavirus from the U.S. to Guatemala at a time when there already were tens of thousands of cases in the U.S. but only a handful of cases in Guatemala.
The data also shows that the U.S. has continued to send deportees infected with COVID-19 to Guatemala, a country with a population of 18 million, even though the Guatemalan government has demanded the U.S. put safeguards in place to prevent infected deportees from being sent to the Central American country.
The U.S. deportations have worsened the coronavirus pandemic in Guatemala, further straining the country’s already weak health care system, and exacerbated an economic crisis in a country known for widespread corruption, Guatemalan government officials and experts say.
Large numbers of the Guatemalan population already live in extreme poverty, and the pandemic, worsened by U.S. deportations, could spur another large exodus of migrants to the U.S. and other countries in the coming year, experts say.
The U.S. deportation flights have continued even as U.S. has implemented numerous measures to restrict people from foreign countries from entering the U.S. to help curb the spread of the coronavirus, including restricting people from China, and certain European countries from traveling to the U.S. during the early months of the pandemic.
“When the pandemic started, they put at risk our national security, and our health security system,” said Deputy Andrea Villagran, a member of Guatemala’s 160-person Congress.
U.S. immigration officials, meanwhile, say they have taken significant measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including testing deportees for the virus before they are sent to other countries.
Deportation flights continued through pandemic
On April 16, the Guatemalan government temporarily suspended deportation flights from the U.S. after the start of widespread testing showed 137 deportees had tested positive for COVID-19.
Prior to that, on April 12, Guatemala had 153 confirmed cases, according to the data compiled by the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University.
Coronavirus cases in the U.S., meanwhile, were spiking and had reached 529,951 on April 12, the Oxford data shows.
And outbreaks were beginning to spread inside crowded U.S. immigration detention centers, where immigrants about to be deported are held.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced on March 24 that a 31-year-old immigrant from Mexico being detained at the Bergen County Jail in New Jersey had become the first detainee in ICE custody to test positive for COVID-19.
Since then, at least 6,755 people detained by ICE in nearly 100 facilities scattered across the country have tested positive for COVID-19.
At least nine people being held in ICE custody in the U.S. have died after contracting COVID-19, according to a list compiled by American Immigration Lawyers Association.
On March 17, Guatemala temporarily suspended receiving Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers on U.S. deportation flights to help prevent the coronavirus from entering the country.
Before that, the U.S. had been deporting Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala under so-called Asylum Cooperation Agreements the Trump administration reached with those countries aimed at curbing a surge in asylum seekers from Central America from coming to the U.S. by forcing them to seek protection in Central America instead.
Guatemala also closed its international airport to commercial flights for six months from March 16 to Sept. 18 as part of a nationwide lockdown to protect Guatemalans from the virus.
Critics say the United States exerted pressure to continue deportation flights from the U.S. into the international airport in Guatemala City.
Data from the Guatemalan government obtained by The Arizona Republic of U.S. deportation flights shows that the U.S. has deported 5,949 people to Guatemala on 78 deportation flights over the six-month period from March 13 to Sept. 21.
At least 302 of those deported were minors, the data shows.
The U.S. deportation flights to Guatemala originated in Alexandria, Louisiana; Brownsville, El Paso and Houston, Texas; and Mesa, the Guatemalan government data shows.
The Guatemalan data also shows that 331 deportees tested positive for COVID-19.
However, the actual number of positive cases is likely much higher. That’s because the Guatemalan government, because of limits in testing capacity, only tested about a quarter of the 5,949 deportees who arrived during that period.
Of the 1,622 tests conducted, 20% of the detainees tested positive for COVID-19, an analysis of the data shows.
The data also shows that deportees arriving from the U.S. continued to test positive for COVID-19 even after U.S. deportation flights to Guatemala resumed on May 4.
Since then, 191 deportees arriving on flights from the U.S. have tested positive for COVID-19, an analysis of the data shows. That is more than half of the 331 total confirmed COVID-19 cases among deportees arriving from the U.S. during that period.
Guatemalan government data also shows that the number of U.S. deportation flights arriving in Guatemala have soared in recent months, as have the number of deportees arriving from the U.S.
In September, for instance, the U.S. deported 1,594 people to Guatemala on 21 flights. That is up from 308 people on seven deportation fights in June, the lowest month, according to Guatemalan data.
In all, the U.S. has deported 17,509 people on 199 deportation flights to Guatemala through Oct. 9 of 2020, Guatemalan government data shows.
ICE officials did not respond to a request for updated data on the number of people who have been deported on U.S. deportation flights to countries in Latin America. They said in June that 955 Guatemalans, 2,217 Hondurans and 1,110 Salvadorans had been deported between April 1 and June 6.
Independent data shows the U.S. has flown more deportation flights to Guatemala than any other country in Latin America during the pandemic, according to Tom Cartwright who tracks the flights for Witness at the Border, an advocacy group that opposes the flights.
The data compiled by Witness for Border, an advocacy group that opposed the flights, shows that the U.S. has flown 706 deportation flights in 2020. The flights to Guatemala, (199); Honduras (177); Mexico (117); El Salvador (80); Ecuador (29); Haiti (20); Dominican Republic (15); Nicaragua (13); Brazil (11); and other countries (52).
U.S. officials outline procedures, precautions
U.S. immigration officials say they have taken steps to prevent deporting people with the COVID-19 coronavirus to other countries.
Since March 11, ICE has screened people for elevated temperatures and other COVID-19 symptoms before deportation flights, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said in a written statement. Deportees with temperatures of 99 degrees or higher are referred to medical providers for further evaluation and observation, the statement said.
To avoid deporting people with active COVID-19 cases, ICE began testing some immigrants in custody scheduled for removal but only when ICE officials deemed warranted or practicable and in accordance with bilateral arrangements with the nation’s governments, the statement said.
Potential deportees who do not pass mandated temperature or medical screenings, or test positive for COVID-19 before a deportation flight are returned to ICE detention facilities, where they are separated from the rest of the detention population in accordance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines, ICE officials said.
The results of medical screening results are noted on each deportee’s medical transfer form and all deportees are given masks to wear before and during deportation flights, ICE officials said.
“Since the start of the pandemic, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has taken significant measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, including screening for symptoms and increased testing for many of those scheduled for removal,” ICE spokesperson Mary Houtmann said in a written statement.
The health, welfare, and safety of ICE detainees “is one of the agency’s highest priorities,” Houtmann said.
Deportees fueled the virus’ spread, Guatemalan elected official says
Some Guatemalan elected officials blame the U.S. deportation flights for helping fuel the spread of the coronavirus in Guatemala.
“They put at risk the lives of the deportees and the lives of the Guatemalan people in general. They should have stopped during that time, ” said Villagran, a member of the Guatemalan Congress.
She believes it was irresponsible for the U.S. to continue to deport people to Guatemala, especially during the start of the pandemic.
The deportations put the health of deportees at risk, since some may have already been infected with COVID-19 but did not know it and they may have then unknowingly spread the virus to family members and others after returning to their homes and communities.
The US. deportations, she said, have further strained the country’s fragile health care system and adding to the country’s economic crisis, she said.
“They knew that if they sent sick people with the coronavirus, our system was going to be overwhelmed,” Villagran said. “They knew that our system did not have the capacity to cover all of Guatemala. They knew that their own country was struggling with the pandemic and our country was going to be more affected.”
Many Guatemalans already lived in extreme poverty before the pandemic, and the country was already dealing with an economic crisis, Villagran said.
Sending people with COVID-19 to Guatemala has exacerbated those conditions, which in turn, will spur more desperate people to migrate to the U.S., she said.
“Sending people that have the virus to Guatemala overwhelmed our health system,” Villagran said. “And because our economic crisis will increase, we will have more people that will want to go to the United States, and we will have more people that want to emigrate to another country.”
In recent years, tens of thousands of undocumented migrants from Guatemala have arrived at the southern border seeking asylum in the U.S., including high numbers of families and unaccompanied minors, after traveling through Mexico, sometimes in migrant caravans made up mostly of Central Americans.
“So we think that the immigration situation will increase in the next years” as Guatemala’s economic crisis deepens due to the coronavirus pandemic, Villagran said.
Guatemala’s economy is the fifth poorest in Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the World Bank.
Half of the country’s 18 million people live in poverty.
The coronavirus pandemic has greatly affected Guatemala’s economy, and the loss of jobs is expected to throw an additional 1 million people into poverty, raising the poverty rate by 6%, according to the World Bank.
“So there is going to be a serious impact on rising poverty,” said Daniella Burgi-Palomino, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, a human rights advocacy group.
The group supports bills introduced in the Senate by U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass, and in the House by U.S. Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, and Frederica Wilson, D-Fla, calling for a moratorium on deportations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“A lot of families, especially in rural and indigenous communities, are going to go deeper into poverty. They are already facing situations where they don’t have access to food and that is the situation migrants are being returned to,” Burgi-Palomino said.
The U.S. deportations also have further strained Guatemala’s weak health care system, which was already fragile due in part to widespread corruption in the country, said Adriana Beltran, director for citizen security at Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank.
The country’s health care system is especially weak in poor, rural, indigenous communities, where many migrants are from, Beltran said.
“Even prior to the pandemic, you had numerous cases of shortages of medicine, health facilities that were never built, lack of equipment and more so in rural communities where if you have any kind of health care facilities, they are rudimentary,” Beltran said. “The pandemic has underscored all of these deficiencies in Guatemala’s health care system.”
Government investigations have shown that corruption has hurt the country’s health care system, which has led to overpricing and the awarding of health care contracts based on political ties, she said.
Data shows that coronavirus cases began to spike in May and June in Guatemala, and have continued to rise since then.
The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Guatemala has now soared to over 104,787, the second-highest number in Central America, according to Oxford Martin School. Guatemala has the highest number of COVID-19-related deaths, at 3,644, as of Oct. 26, the same data shows.
Beltran said it’s difficult to measure how much the U.S. deportations contributed to the pandemic in Guatemala. But there is no question the U.S. deportations worsened the pandemic there, she said.
“That just created a greater challenge to what was an already weak health care system where they didn’t have and still don’t have the capacity to address this,” Beltran said. “It just added more, making the situation a lot worse.”
U.S. applies financial pressure to region
The Trump administration has also pressured Guatemala and other Northern Triangle countries to continue to accept deportees despite the pandemic, Burgi-Palomino said.
The pressure started before the pandemic as part of several U.S. measures aimed at halting an exodus of migrant families in 2018 and 2019 from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
“The U.S. has wielded enormous pressure, particularly Central American governments, to accept deportees, even before the pandemic,” Burgi-Palomino said.
After traveling through Mexico, the migrant families arrived at the U.S. southern border and turned themselves over to Border Patrol agents to request asylum. Most were quickly released because of U.S. immigration laws and court orders as well as limited detention space for families in the U.S. The migrant families said they were fleeing poverty, violence, and political unrest, but Trump maintained most of the asylum claims were bogus and the families were exploiting “loopholes” in the U.S. immigration system knowing they would be released after being given notices to appear for immigration hearings later on.
In April 2019, the Trump administration withheld $450 million in aid to the three Northern Triangle countries because he said they had not done enough to stem the outward flow of migrants to the U.S.
The following July, the Trump administration reached an agreement with Guatemala that requires migrants from El Salvador and Honduras who travel through Guatemala to apply for protections in Guatemala instead of the U.S.
The U.S. also signed agreements with the three countries allowing the U.S. to deport asylum seekers who arrive in the U.S. from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala.
The Guatemalan government halted those deportation flights in March.
“And so it’s not too much of a surprise that (the Guatemalan government” was slow at first to push back against the U.S. deportations to Guatemala.
In May, however, Giammattei, the Guatemalan president, a retired doctor, criticized the United States for continuing to deport migrants to Guatemala amid the pandemic.
“We understand that the United States wants to deport people, but what we do not understand is why they send us flights full of infection,” Giammattei said in an online talk hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, according to Reuters.
“We’ve had serious problems with deported people,” Giammattei said. “We haven’t been treated by the United States in a way that I’d say is kind, in relation to the deportees.”
Giammattei later tested positive for COVID-19 on Sept. 18.
‘They were sending the virus with the deportees’
Villagran also been critical of her own country’s handling of deportees from the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.
In the first weeks of the pandemic, the Guatemalan government allowed the U.S. to continue sending deportees and then failed to track their symptoms or test them for the virus before sending them home, even though tourists and business travelers were being tracked and tested, Villagran said.
“The people were sent to their homes, most of them to the rural areas, where there is a lot of poverty, and not access to some basic services like health,” Villagran said. “That put us in a dangerous situation because they were sending the virus with the deportees to the places far from Guatemala City where they don’t have access to health care systems.”
Media reports showed that some Guatemalans deported from the U.S. have been stigmatized upon returning to their homes by community members fearful of deportees spreading the virus, Villagran said.
Some recent deportees have faced death threats, or were violently prevented from returning home to their communities, said Jeff Abbott, an American freelance reporter based in Guatemala City.
He interviewed one migrant from the state of San Marcos in the western highlands of Guatemala who said he began showing symptoms of COVID-19 on the deportation flight from the U.S. He found out he had COVID-19 when doctors tested him after he arrived in Guatemala.
The migrant received threats on social media.
“They threatened to set fire to me,” the migrant told Abbott, who published the account online in Al Jazeera, a news outlet.
Local authorities in several rural communities in Guatemala put up roadblocks to prevent deportees from returning to their homes in the early days of the pandemic. The hostility has since subsided, Abbott said in an interview.
Repatriation process remains contentious
The Guatemalan government began testing deportees arriving from the U.S. after an outcry from some members of Congress, Villagran said.
The high number of deportees who initially tested positive for COVID-19 confirmed the U.S. was exporting the virus to Guatemala. It also indicates a high possibility that others who weren’t tested early on also were infected.
In September, Guatemala Minster of Foreign Affairs Pedro Brolo Vila wrote Villagran a letter justifying the Guatemalan government’s continued acceptance of deportees from the U.S amid the coronavirus pandemic.
By law, the Guatemalan government cannot prevent Guatemalans from being repatriated to their own country, Brolo wrote in the letter, which Villagran shared.
Under an agreement with Guatemala, the United States also guaranteed to test deportees for COVID-19 before deporting them to Guatemala, and deportees arrive with documents verifying they had tested negative, the letter said.
But Villagran said deportees arriving from the U.S. continue to test positive for the coronavirus even after the protocols were put in place.
On May 8, for instance, two days after U.S. deportation flights resumed, the Guatemalan government announced two scheduled deportation flights had been halted because protocols had not been instituted.
The Guatemalan government has refused her request to turn over the documents verifying the deportees tested negative, Villagran said.
The Guatemalan government is supposed to test 10% of deportees arriving from the U.S. on deportation flights, under protocols that have been implemented to prevent the spread of the virus, Villagran said. If one deportee tests positive for COVID-19, all deportees arriving on that flight are supposed to be tested. But that isn’t happening, she said.
Under the protocols, detainees are sent to shelters or hotels to await test results. Those who test positive for COVID-19 are quarantined.
But there have been instances where deportees have waited days for tests results that never arrived, so they were sent home, Villagran said.
What’s more, some of the deportees who tested positive arrived with negative COVID-19 test documents from the U.S. that were over two weeks old, Villagran said. The two-week old negative tests were confirmed by information provided to members of Congress “under the table” by nurses from the Guatemalan Ministry of Health, she said.
Burgi-Palomino at the Latin America Working Group finds that troubling.
“There’s just a lot of questions about, I think, how ICE does its testing and how it confirms that someone is testing negative,” Burgi-Palomino said.
By the numbers
The Arizona Republic, part of the USA Today Network, obtained data of U.S. deportation flights to Guatemala for the six-month period from March 13 to Sept. 21, 2020.
Here is a summary of the data:
78: Total number of U.S. deportation flights
5,949: Number of people deported from the U.S. to Guatemala on deportation flights
1,622: Number of deportees tested for COVID-19
331: Number of those who tested positive for COVID-19
27: Percent of all deportees who were tested for COVID-19
20: Percent who tested positive
Source: Guatemalan Ministry of Health, via Andrea Villagran, an elected member of the Guatemalan Congress.
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