DHS Watchdog: Failure to Screen Migrants for COVID Put Staff, Towns at Risk A U.S. Border Patrol agent instructs immigrant families as they prepare to board transport to a processing center after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on Aug. 13, 2021, in La Joya, Texas. (John Moore/Getty Images)
By Charlie McCarthy | Thursday, 16 September 2021 12:42 PM
The Department of Homeland Security put employees and border town residents at greater risk of COVID-19 infection by failing to adequately screen migrants, a government watchdog said.
DHS Inspector General Joseph Cuffari sent a memo to Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas last week saying the agency needed to enhance its COVID-19 response at the southern border.
"DHS leadership must commit to strengthening these COVID-19 preventative measures. Without stronger measures in place, DHS is putting its workforce, support staff, communities, and migrants at greater risk for contracting the virus," an IG report concluded.
"We acknowledge the difficulty balancing protective measures with the primary mission of securing the border. However, DHS must be prepared to meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as future pandemics."
The inspector general's office reviewed how federal law enforcement at the southern border apprehended, detained, and released migrants from March through May, the Washington Examiner reported Thursday.
The IG report came as the crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border gets worse. More than 208,000 illegal migrants were encountered in August, second only to July's 213,534 as the most in the past 21 years.
A DHS employee tipped off investigators by filing a complaint through the Office of Special Counsel.
The migrant surge has affected Customs and Border Protection (CBP) holding facilities and local organizations, which have struggled to keep up with testing people.
Border Patrol agents are not required to test migrants. Instead, CBP relies on local health agencies, city resources, and nonprofit organizations to test migrants only after they have been released into cities across the southern border.
"The COVID-19 testing process for family units post-CBP custody is not effective because municipalities cannot force families to isolate for the required quarantine period," the report said. "Extended time-in-custody of migrants leads to overcapacity and overcrowding at Border Patrol stations."
CBP is supposed to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations for keeping people socially distant.
"CBP is not able to maintain proper physical distancing in holding facilities due to the current number of migrants illegally entering the United States, and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement's] and [the Department of Health and Human Services'] inability to rapidly take custody of migrants," the report continued. "Migrants are constantly reminded of COVID-19 risk but choose not to social distance or wear provided masks."
The Examiner said more than 11,000 of CBP’s 60,000 employees have tested positive for COVID-19, with 43 employees having died, including dozens who were based on the border.