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Guatemala limits deportations from the US as coronavirus cases surge in both countries

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Officers. (ICE/Released)

The Guatemalan government has placed a cap on the number of people the U.S. can deport on a weekly basis, a spokesperson for the Central American country’s government told the Miami Herald.

The new measures, which went into effect about three weeks ago, were launched because the country says it has continued to receive U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportees with coronavirus, said Ana Patricia Letona, a spokesperson for Guatemala’s foreign ministry.

“Due to current restrictions and to not overrun the country’s capacity, there are currently only two weekly flights with a total of 50 passengers each. This way, we can monitor and track each person before they are sent to their communities,” Letona said, noting that the new measures are in stark contrast to how many deportees the country was accepting monthly before the pandemic, which was about 4,000.

In March that number went down to about 1,900, Letona said. As cases of COVID-19 continued to surge globally in April and May, and the number of deportees with COVID-19 being repatriated began to climb, the country began accepting about 700 a month. But now, Guatemalan officials are only accepting about 100 people a week, or about 400 a month.

The country’s tight deportation restrictions have created an overwhelming backlog of Guatemalan nationals stuck in ICE detention who are waiting to be deported, according to detainees, immigration lawyers and advocates.

Edison Garcia del Cid is part of that growing group. The 20-year-old ICE detainee has been transferred at least 18 times in the past two months. Seven of those trips were to Miami and Georgia airports to be deported.

“Every time we get to the airport, the flight gets canceled,” Garcia del Cid told the Herald over the phone from the Stewart Detention Center in Georgia. “Me and so many Guatemalans have been ready; we are dying to get deported at this point. If not, we’ll end up dying behind these bars instead.”

He added: “I am in more danger in this prison than out there in Guatemala. Coronavirus is spreading rapidly and I’d rather take my chances and catch the virus in the open airs of Guatemala than in this crammed, dirty jail.”

According to Letona, there are more than 5,000 Guatemalans in ICE custody, “making the wait list even longer.”

“We know that we have a very large number of people who are waiting to be deported from ICE detention centers, and Guatemala is fully prepared to receive their nationals, just as long as they do not exceed the weekly … capacity of 100 people that we have at this time,” Letona said.

On Tuesday, ICE said there are no countries that have placed a cap on the number of people deported from the U.S. When the Herald asked about Guatemala, ICE did not respond.

The agency also refused to disclose which countries have suspended deportations altogether and which countries are requiring COVID-19 testing prior to accepting deportees.

“While ICE has not suspended removal operations to any country, there are certain countries that have been unwilling to accept their nationals for (a) short time due to COVID-19. The list has remained fluid over the last several months given the circumstances,” ICE told the Herald in an email. “Because of the rapidly changing circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, testing requirements for individual countries remain fluid.”

Monica Whatley, who helps lead the Southeast Immigrant Freedom Initiative — a program at the Southern Poverty Law Center that provides free legal representation to detained immigrants — said that national immigrant justice group has been tracking the cases of at least 15 Guatemalans who are still awaiting deportation to Guatemala alongside Garcia del Cid at the Stewart Detention Center.

“Some were recently flown to Louisiana for deportation and then either sent back to Stewart or transferred to another detention center because the deportation flight to Guatemala was canceled,” Whatley said, noting that ICE is “not giving detainees any information about where they are on the wait list and how long they can expect to wait to be deported.”

“The uncertainty about when they will be deported is adding stress to what is already a stressful situation. The dangers of being detained during a pandemic are well documented,” she added. “The substandard conditions of these immigration detention centers, which have been cited in the past for poor sanitation and inadequate medical care, only exacerbate conditions favorable for transmission of the disease.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center is just one of several national immigration groups that have filed lawsuits in federal courts across the country seeking the release of detainees, including in South Florida and Georgia.

Sally Sandoval, an immigration attorney representing several detainees in Stewart, told the Herald that “four Guatemalans were deported last week. Once they got to Guatemala, they tested positive for COVID-19 and they were sent back to the U.S. and taken back to the detention center.”

“After that, the government attempted to deport them again,” Sandoval said. “They wake them up in the morning, take them to the airport and wait and see what happens.”

In late May, the Department of Homeland Security revealed it was only testing a sample of the detainees it is removing from the United States and using a 15-minute rapid test to determine if they have the coronavirus.

The response by DHS to a Miami Herald inquiry came as immigration advocates continued to call for an end to deportations amid surging COVID-19 infections in Latin America and the Caribbean and as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned about the accuracy of the test being used, called the Abbott ID NOW.

A few weeks before that the FDA had cautioned that early data “suggests potential inaccurate results from using the Abbott ID NOW point-of-care test to diagnose COVID-19. Specifically, the test may return false negative results.”

In response to the FDA’s warning, an ICE spokesperson said their health officials were “provided the rapid tests through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.” Darcy Ross, of Abbott, defended the test, saying “studies suggest ID NOW performs best in patients tested earlier post symptom onset” and “delivers results in minutes rather than days, (allowing) people with symptoms to take action before they infect others.”

Abbot ID NOW is among nearly 70 rapid tests that have been granted emergency authorization from the FDA to test for COVID-19. But as the U.S. begins to reopen and testing for the virus expands, questions have emerged about the accuracy of such tests.

Guatemala’s government has confirmed to the Herald that some returning migrants are still testing positive for COVID-19 after being deported by ICE. Country officials said detainees have continued testing positive once arriving in Guatemala despite having clean-bill-of-health documents showing they had tested negative for COVID-19.

In April, Guatemala created a political firestorm when it suspended deportations from the U.S. until the Trump administration agreed to test all of its migrants before returning them. The announcement was made after health officials reported that at least 70 deported Guatemalan migrants tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival.


© 2020 Miami Herald

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