US expands virus testing of detained migrants amid criticism

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Guatemalans deported from the U.S., wearing a mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, line up to board a bus after arriving at La Aurora airport in Guatemala City, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. The United States resumed deportation flights to Guatemala, nearly a month after the Central American country refused to accept them. (AP Photo/Moises Castillo)

WASHINGTON – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Wednesday that it has expanded COVID-19 testing among people held at its detention facilities following criticism of its response to the outbreak.

ICE says it now offers voluntary tests for the virus to all people held at detention facilities in Tacoma, Washington, and Aurora, Colorado, and will consider doing the same at other locations. The announcement follows weeks of criticism that the agency has not taken sufficient steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among people in its custody and those it deports to other countries.

The most recent data available from ICE shows there are 788 people with COVID-19 among the nearly 25,000 people in its custody at about 200 facilities around the nation. The largest outbreak, with more than 100 cases, is at a detention center in the Dallas area.

ICE says it has tested nearly 5,100 detainees since the start of the outbreak.

There have been 45 confirmed cases among ICE employees at detention centers, including 15 at a facility at the airport in Alexandria, Louisiana, where people are held just prior to deportation.

Guatemala suspended deportation flights from the U.S. for nearly a month after at least 186 people tested positive for COVID-19 upon their return even after U.S. assurances that they were healthy. Those flights resumed Tuesday with one from Alexandria.

ICE has disputed claims from detainees and immigrant advocates of insufficient supplies of hygiene materials such as soap and face masks or social distancing at confinement facilities, some of which are operated by private companies or local government agencies.

At a hearing this month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein expressed surprise when Henry Lucero, the agency's executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations, testified that detainees are typically tested only when they show symptoms of the disease. “I am very interested in seeing that everyone is tested," the senator, a California Democrat, told him.