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18 percent of migrant families leaving Border Patrol custody tested positive for Covid, document says

In addition, over 25 percent of migrants recently scheduled for some “expedited” deportation flights tested positive, says a document obtained by NBC News.
Image: Undocumented Immigrants Attempt To Cross Into U.S. Near Del Rio, Texas
Venezuelan immigrants board a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle in Del Rio, Texas, on May 18, 2021.John Moore / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — More than 18 percent of migrant families and 20 percent of unaccompanied minors who recently crossed the U.S. border tested positive for Covid on leaving Border Patrol custody over the past two to three weeks, according to a document prepared this week for a Thursday briefing with President Joe Biden.

Some flights scheduled to deport migrants had more than 25 percent of passengers test positive before departure, leading Immigration and Customs Enforcement to remove those migrants from the flights for quarantine in the U.S., according to the document.

The Department of Homeland Security document does not give precise dates or say how many migrants were tested.

Migrants are not tested for Covid in Border Patrol custody unless they show symptoms, but all are tested when they leave Border Patrol custody, according to DHS officials. Immigrants who are allowed to stay in the U.S. to claim asylum are given tests when they are transferred to ICE, Health and Human Services or non-governmental organizations. Deportees who are scheduled to be put on planes out of the U.S. are tested for Covid and other infectious diseases by ICE.

As of Wednesday, more than 15,000 migrants were in Border Patrol custody, according to Customs and Border Protection data obtained by NBC News.

If a migrant who is about to be deported by ICE tests positive for Covid, the migrant is quarantined and deportation is delayed, according to DHS. The document refers specifically to those migrants chosen for "expedited removal," meaning they were deported soon after they crossed or attempted to cross the U.S. border.

"In the last 2-3 weeks, the percent positivity rates among all demographics has increased," the document says.

The document also recommends DHS provide more medical staffing at border processing facilities, citing one in the Rio Grande Valley where three EMTs were responsible for 3,000 migrants.

A second DHS document prepared this week for the White House says high positivity rates are "straining the capacity of the NGOs and local governments that DHS currently partners with to care for them."

That document attributes the rise of Covid among undocumented immigrants to "the highly transmissible Delta variant combined with lengthier stays in crowded [Customs and Border Protection] facilities."

The high rates have triggered emergency meetings between the White House, HHS and DHS this week, according to two sources with knowledge of the discussions.

The briefing materials make clear that the high number of Covid-positive migrants is slowing down the deportation of families, an effort the administration ramped up in late July.

In a statement, a White House spokesperson said, "DHS and CBP takes its responsibility to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and other diseases very seriously. CBP provides migrants who can't be expelled...or are awaiting processing with PPE from the moment they are taken into custody, and migrants are required to keep masks on at all times, including when they are transferred or in the process of being released. If anyone exhibits signs of illness in CBP custody, they are referred to local health systems for appropriate testing, diagnosis, isolation and treatment."

The Biden administration is considering testing all migrants in Border Patrol custody, according to the second document, but CBP, the Border Patrol's parent agency, does not currently have the testing capability.

Deputy Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz, who will soon take over as chief, told NBC News on Wednesday that such testing would lead to further bottlenecks in the Border Patrol's facilities.

"As you can see, we're already overwhelmed," Ortiz said, standing next to a bridge in Del Rio, Texas, where hundreds of migrants have been held at a time, sleeping on the ground, as border processing facilities are stretched six times past their capacity

On Tuesday, CBP stopped 6,725 undocumented immigrants crossing into the U.S., according to internal data obtained by NBC News, keeping with the daily pace of July, which saw 210,000 total apprehensions, a 21-year high.

Of the more than 6,700 stopped, more than 900 were unaccompanied children, a demographic that continues to increase, according to the data.