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ICE has been testing migrants before deportation. But how it’s doing so is problematic.

The Department of Homeland Security is 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.

ICE has been testing migrants before deportation. But how it's doing so is problematic.

Miami Herald / Monique O. Madan and Jacqueline Charles / May 29, 2020

The Department of Homeland Security is 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 comes as immigration advocates continue 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 warns about the accuracy of the test being used, called the Abbott ID NOW.

Earlier this month, the FDA 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."

Made by Abbott Laboratories, the test, promoted by the Trump administration, is said to provide inaccurate results that could have patients falsely believing they are not infected with the coronavirus.

In response to the FDA's warning, a spokesperson with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said their health officials were "provided the rapid tests through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

Guatemala's government has confirmed that some returning migrants are still testing positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, since being deported by ICE. All arrive with clean bill of health documents showing they had tested negative for COVID-19.

The infections were detected after the Guatemalan health ministry did a random testing of the arriving detainees, all of whom are supposed to be tested by ICE before deportation under a protocol negotiated by the Guatemalan government with the Trump administration.

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.

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.

Dr. Tim Stenzel, director of the FDA's Office of In Vitro Diagnostics and Radiological Health, warned: "Negative results may need to be confirmed with a high-sensitivity authorized molecular test."

Immigration activists say the fact that DHS is trying to find a cheaper and faster alternative to testing for migrants in their custody prior to deporting them does not address their criticism that the Trump administration is exporting COVID-19 to vulnerable countries and endangering their populations.

"It shows how little ICE is concerned about spreading COVID-19 to other countries," said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel with the based American Immigration Council.

Ur M. Jaddou, director of DHS Watch, a project of America's Voice, another immigration advocacy group, added: "It's all really concerning; first of all the sampling and secondly, the type of testing they are using."

Since the coronavirus started spreading across the U.S. in March, the U.S. has operated 135 deportation flights into the region, Jake Johnston of the Center for Economic and Policy Research told members of congress Friday.

Scores of migrants have been deported back to their home countries after the Trump administration warned foreign governments that they risk sanctions like visa cancellations if they refuse to accept their nationals. Haiti, Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, which received a flight on Thursday, have all reported COVID-19 infections in returning migrants.

After Guatemala stopped accepting deportees, the Trump administration deployed a team from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the country to investigate its testing methodology.

After the CDC confirmed there were indeed detainees with the virus, Guatemala negotiated to have all of its nationals tested before they're deported from the U.S. ICE said it has been testing all Guatemalan migrants since April 26 prior to removing them from the U.S.

In late April, ICE said it would acquire approximately 2,000 tests a month from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, but warned that given the nationwide shortages, it likely "won't have enough to test all aliens scheduled for future removals."

On Tuesday, DHS recited the same national shortage problem, but specified that only a "sample" of detainees are being tested prior to boarding ICE flights.

"Under such a scenario, ICE would test a sample of the population and provide the respective foreign government with results," an ICE spokesperson said in an email.

ICE confirmed that it removed 30 Haitian nationals from the United States on Tuesday. It tested only 16 detainees, a spokesperson said, and one of them tested positive after being issued a rapid test. The detainee was not deported and instead returned to a detention facility, ICE said.

But at least eight of the detainees on that ICE Air deportation flight, Haiti's eighth since February, had recently tested positive for the coronavirus and at least one reported having a fever, difficulty breathing symptoms and pain in his chest and legs. He was among those deported, advocates say.

During a federal court hearing in Miami on Wednesday, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney representing ICE told a federal judge that the agency is not conducting COVID-19 testing on every detainee who gets transferred from one detention center to another. Instead, he said, ICE is only testing people who have symptoms — a protocol that has led the agency to transfer detainees who are asymptomatic while infected with the virus.

"Additionally, in an effort to avoid removing aliens with active COVID-19 cases, on April 26, 2020, ICE began testing some aliens in custody and prior to removal," the agency said in a statement. "Where DHS/ICE deems detainee testing is warranted/appropriate by specific bilateral agreement, ICE coordinates with foreign governments to prioritize testing of detainees per evolving operational considerations."

Immigration advocates say that while the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince has shared ICE's protocol with the Haitian government and Congress, it failed to specify that rapid tests were being used or that only a sample of the Haitians slated for deportation were being tested.

"It's inexcusable for ICE to test a small fraction of detainees and then deport, relying on a test the FDA calls unreliable because it gives false negatives," said Steve Forester, immigration policy coordinator for the Boston-based Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti.

According to the protocol, individuals scheduled for removal to Haiti will be tested by ICE for COVID-19 within 72 hours of their departure from the U.S. Anyone testing positive will be removed from the flight. Prior to the flight's boarding, a DHS nurse rechecks each individual's written medical document, which includes the results, to ensure all are negative. A copy of the clean bill of health summary for each detainee is provided to the Haitian ministry of health representative upon the flight's arrival in Port-au-Prince.

The concerns of immigration activists is bolstered by reports from detainees and their families that even after testing positive for COVID-19, they are not always given a retest to ensure they are negative before being returned to the general population.

They also note that Haiti, which has a limited number of tests and has started to see infections sharply rise, does not endorse rapid testing due to the probability for false negatives. "Our position on rapid testing has not changed," said Dr. Jean William "Bill" Pape, the co-president of a presidential commission overseeing the COVID-19 response in Haiti.

Ashish Jha, director of Harvard's Global Health Institute, said that not testing all detainees is "the biggest problem of all."

"This is part of a broader problem of having such little testing capacity in our country. Everybody is having to choose between bad choices," Jha said. "But sampling does not get you out of this. By not testing everyone you are running a major risk in spreading the virus not just to those that are healthy on the plane but to other countries."

U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, shared Jha's concerns. She was unaware, she said, that DHS was using rapid testing, or only testing a handful of detainees being returned to Haiti.

"Most of our airplanes are grounded because air traffic is not safe. What makes them think the airports are safe for detainees? They are still human beings; why expose them? What is the purpose of this?" Wilson said.

On Friday, Wilson hosted a virtual forum on Haiti, titled: "An Impending Crisis: COVID-19 in Haiti, Ongoing Instability, and the Dangers of Continued U.S. Deportations.." The event featured House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, activists and planning experts and other lawmakers representing large Haitian-American constituencies.

The ongoing deportations to Haiti, which is starting to run out of available beds for infected coronavirus patients, led the discussions. As lawmakers expressed support for Wilson's Haitian Deportation Relief Act, which calls for the suspension of the removals, they, along with the invited speakers, also accused the Trump administration of being inhumane and making an already bad situation in Haiti worse.

"Haiti is facing a crisis right now and the Trump administration's cruel deportation policy is adding fuel to the fire," said Engel, D-NY "It's downright barbaric the Trump administration has been deporting Haitian nationals with coronavirus back to a country we all know is too fragile to handle a serious outbreak."

Wilson said Republican senators are her biggest obstacle to getting the legislation passed, so she and other supporters of her bill are asking voters to tell their senators to pass it.

"Why are we moving people around during this virus knowing we have cases of coronavirus in the detention centers, and among staff? What is the point?" Wilson said. "Let everyone shelter in place, treat those who show symptoms, test those who are exposed and leave the people alone. I don't understand the method behind the madness of deporting people during a pandemic."