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Trump’s Deportation Flights Are Inflaming the Pandemic

After baselessly accusing migrants of bringing coronavirus to the U.S., the administration is endangering the lives of infected detainees.

John Moore/Getty Images

In the midst of a historic pandemic, an ICE Air flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, left Alexandria, Louisiana, on Monday morning, with some 50 Haitian nationals aboard.

For James, one of the passengers, the flight was the culmination of a multiyear nightmare in the United States. (James is not his real name, which we are withholding for the sake of his safety.) He endured a long and perilous journey to the U.S. border in San Diego in 2018, where he sought asylum, according to Guerline Jozef, president of the San Diego–based Haitian Bridge Alliance, who is familiar with his case. Unable to access legal representation, James was detained at the Adelanto Detention Center, a notorious private immigrant prison in Southern California, for nearly two years. From there, Jozef said, he was transported, handcuffed and shackled, to Louisiana, where he was put on the flight heading to Port-au-Prince.

This is a devastating story of a punitive and heartless immigration system in its own right. But these injustices are now happening against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which, having ravaged detention centers, is now being spread knowingly by our government into poor countries by way of our relentless deportation regime. There is a vicious irony at work: Our government has blamed these very same immigrants for bringing this disease into the U.S., using it as a pretext to temporarily ban immigration writ large. In fact, the opposite is true.

There had originally been over 100 people slated for deportation on James’s flight, including five who tested positive for the coronavirus in the past month, according to Steve Forester of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, which had access to the flight manifest. Stephane Etienne, who has been held at the Pine Prairie Immigration and Customs Enforcement Processing Center in Louisiana since April 1—and who has tested positive twice for the coronavirus, most recently on April 28—was one of them, according to The Miami Herald. His name was eventually removed from the manifest, along with that of Mackendy Calice, who tested positive on April 26, confirmed Forester. The other three who had tested positive were transferred to the Alexandria staging ground on Sunday before their names were ultimately removed from the flight list as well. (After this piece went to press, the Guatemalan Foreign Ministry reported that three of the deportees on the Wednesday flight from Alexandria tested positive for the coronavirus upon arrival.)

In an interview with HuffPost, Calice described his interaction with one of his dorm mates the day before his transfer: “When he was leaving, his leg was aching,” he said. “You know, like when you have a fever?” Calice told HuffPost that his dorm mate underwent multiple coronavirus tests in front of him. The next day, his dorm mate confirmed the results: “He just basically said, I’m positive. I got six positives.”

Perhaps owing to recent media exposure or effective legal advocacy, these men were spared deportation this week. Nevertheless, flights filled with Covid-19 carriers continue. There have been eight such flights this week alone, according to data collected by Jake Johnston at the Center for Economic and Policy Research—and a total of 98 flights since March 15, with destinations in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Jamaica. Recent reports have also claimed that some 130 migrants from India will soon be deported to New Delhi.

The U.S. is deporting the coronavirus to “countries that, even before the coronavirus, had weak and anemic medical and health care systems, and that now, under the coronavirus, are simply unable to meet the public demand for care, let alone the deportation of Covid-19,” said Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of the Boston-based legal advocacy center Lawyers for Civil Rights.

According to Jozef, of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, which advocates on behalf of Haitian and black migrants, over 240 people were deported to Haiti from the U.S. between April 7 and May 11, including many young children, and at least four people on an April 7 flight tested positive for the coronavirus. Haiti has fewer than 100 ventilators for a population of over 10 million, she said. The virus is spreading quickly there. As of Wednesday, there were 218 cases, double the number reported a week before. And while ICE has no problem sending potentially infected Haitians into the country, it has been a “total nightmare” to import needed supplies and equipment into Haiti, a top doctor reported, and many lack access to potable water and plumbing. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

Meanwhile, in Guatemala, 117 people deported from the U.S. had tested positive for Covid-19 as of May 4—some 15 percent of the country’s total cases. Guatemala has managed on several occasions to temporarily halt the flights, prompting the Trump administration to threaten sanctions against countries that refuse deportees. As of this week, those flights have resumed. Although U.S. officials have promised to test all detainees for the virus before they board, one ICE official told The New Yorker’s Jonathan Blitzer that he was “skeptical” that the U.S. would be able to competently perform this task. Guatemalan officials, meanwhile, are under duress to accept the deportation flights. As one adviser to the Guatemalan government told Blitzer, the country does not want “the wrath of the U.S. right now.”

Haiti, for its part, has established a presidential panel to urge ICE to halt the flights, and Florida Congresswoman Federica Wilson has introduced a bill to cease them entirely. But Haiti, which is still recovering from the catastrophic 2010 earthquake, has very little leverage and is reliant on foreign assistance from the U.S. As Haiti’s ambassador to the U.S., Hervé Denis, told The World, “This is David and Goliath. So what can we do? We are not even David.”

Naturally, openly bullying less powerful countries into submitting to its will is an American tradition that has contributed to the destabilization that drives migration in the first place. “The U.S. government is obviously taking advantage” of its relationship with Guatemala, said Julio Gonzalez, a project consultant with Te Conecta, a nongovernmental organization based in Guatemala City that provides assistance to migrants who are returned to Guatemala, in an email to The New Republic. “That’s why these flights have been arriving constantly during this pandemic.”

Johnston, who collected the flight data at CEPR, told The New Republic that he views the deportation flights as “just the latest example of a U.S. policy that will exacerbate the root causes of migration.”

“It’s also, plainly, stupid,” he added. “By continuing deportations during a global pandemic, the U.S. is simply ensuring the crisis lasts longer and is more widespread. That threatens the region, but also the U.S. itself.”

As the U.S. knowingly deports the coronavirus to countries where conditions have prompted mass migration, it has taken advantage of fears around the disease to ban immigration outright—something Stephen Miller and his ilk in the White House have reportedly been preparing for since Trump entered office. The consequences of America’s policy have been, and will be, immediate. On the border, the administration has paused all of the pending asylum cases until June 1, including those of some 25,000 people who have been forced to wait to begin the process in Mexico. Migrants who have been waiting in tents and makeshift housing at the border for months will now be forced to remain there even longer or give up and cross international borders amid a pandemic.

It’s a recipe for the spread of the coronavirus. At least four children deported from Mexico have tested positive for the coronavirus, the Guatemalan government reported last week. Meanwhile, Guatemalans stopped by Border Patrol on the U.S. side, including children, are sent back to Mexico within half an hour, without undergoing any kind of medical examination, according to ABC News.

There are almost a thousand confirmed cases of coronavirus in ICE detention, of the 1,800 who have been tested. (There are a total of 30,000 people currently in ICE custody.) As in prisons, the coronavirus has spread precipitously in these facilities, where some of those being held lack access to basic hygiene products and adequate medical care, and where social distancing is nearly impossible. Last week, Salvadoran national Carlos Ernesto Escobar Mejía became the first person in ICE detention to die of the coronavirus.

Immigrant and civil rights organizations across the country, including Haitian Bridge Alliance and the Boston-based National Lawyers for Civil Rights, are working overtime to secure the release of people in immigrant detention amid the pandemic. Many of these efforts have focused on securing the release of people who fall under the CDC guidelines of people eligible for release from incarceration for health reasons, with some success. But, as Espinoza stressed, everyone in immigrant detention is vulnerable to the coronavirus, not just people with underlying conditions.

“The fact that in the middle of this pandemic, a once-in-a-century pandemic, federal immigration officials refused to consider alternatives to detention is unconscionable,” he said.

For those unable to secure release, the alternative seems to be these flights, exporting a plague to vulnerable nations across the hemisphere and dumping deportees into an entirely different sort of crisis. The prospect of deportation was already harrowing before the pandemic. As Jozef explained, the flights into Haiti arrive in Port-au-Prince filled with migrants who hail from other parts of the country. It can take weeks or months after that until she again hears from her clients, who are left stranded. Most Guatemalans who are deported to Guatemala City face similar logistical challenges in being routed to their hometowns. Before the coronavirus, a handful of local nonprofits would meet returned Guatemalans at the airport and offer them a helping hand upon their arrival. Now, due to social distancing guidelines, they are unable to meet large groups at the airport and must resort to offering assistance via WhatsApp.

“Everything is done differently these days,” explained Gonzales, of Te Conecta, which helps returned Guatemalans find jobs. “You can’t shake hands, everyone maintains their distance.”

Recently deported people often faced stigma in their home countries, in part a legacy of U.S. immigration policy. That stigma has been amplified during the coronavirus crisis. In Guatemala, some recently deported people have faced threats and attacks from Guatemalans afraid that people coming from the U.S.—from detention centers, no less—will spread the disease and put their communities at risk. One man, who didn’t learn he had contracted the coronavirus until he was tested by Guatemalan authorities upon his forced return, was threatened by an angry mob when he arrived at his hometown, reported Al Jazeera. “They threatened to set fire to me,” he said. “They said they didn’t want us in the village, and that my entire family had to be removed because they are infected.”

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giamattei—himself a former prison director and surgeon—has publicly condemned such attacks. But other government officials have stoked fears, with the country’s health minister referring to the U.S. as the “Wuhan of the Americas.” The government has quarantined deported persons immediately upon arrival at the Guatemala City airport. Closed to commercial flights, the airport has become a kind of lazaretto, reported The Wall Street Journal in mid-April, raising human rights concerns. For its part, the Haitian government has quarantined all recently deported people in hotels for 14 days, on its own dime.

This is hardly the first time the U.S. has foisted harmful policies upon its neighbors that have contributed to their destabilization. Nevertheless, the pandemic has wrought a previously unthinkable contortion of cruelty. This is, after all, an administration whose top advisers seem to think the Monroe Doctrine is still in effect.

The U.S. has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the world—even in that, American exceptionalism persists. And yet it still insists that it is foreigners who are “infecting” us and not the other way around. Despite the unprecedented scale of the pandemic, the Trump administration is hell-bent on making policy decisions in accordance with how it believes that will play to its electoral base. “Decisions are always screened through the lens of whether or not they help Potus’s reelection,” one American official told The New Yorker. “The White House doesn’t have time for Guatemala’s bullshit. Deportations must continue.”