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U.S. to review coronavirus tests of deportees in Guatemala as country pauses deportation flights — again

Experts warn more coronavirus testing needed
Experts warn more coronavirus testing needed 03:15

The Trump administration has tasked an outfit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) personnel with evaluating coronavirus tests of migrants deported to Guatemala, the latest measure to address growing concerns about the U.S. sending infected deportees to the Central American country.

The CDC team is on the ground in Guatemala to "review and validate" coronavirus tests being performed by Guatemalan health officials on recently deported migrants, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Jenny Burke. ICE, which is in charge of deporting people from the U.S., could "re-evaluate current medical procedures" and implement new ones, Burke said, depending on what the team finds.

The Guatemalan government also moved on Thursday to indefinitely suspend deportation flights from the U.S. for a second time this month, according to foreign ministry spokesperson Joaquín Samayoa. Flights had been paused for a week over coronavirus concerns before they resumed on Monday.

Samayoa said there's currently no known end date to the temporary freeze on deportation flights. Last week, President Trump issued a directive threatening to impose visa sanctions on countries that refuse or "unreasonably" delay deportation flights from the U.S. during the pandemic.

Guatemala Virus Outbreak
An immigration worker in an orange jacket and wearing a mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, carries a young Guatemalan who was deported from the U.S., followed by another deportee, at La Aurora International airport in Guatemala City, Thursday, March 12, 2020. Moises Castillo / AP

The announcements follow reports that dozens of migrants deported to Guatemala by the U.S. have tested positive for coronavirus. According to a spokesperson for the Guatemalan health ministry, the official count of confirmed cases among deportees stands at 17.

But the Associated Press, citing an unnamed Guatemalan government official, reported Thursday that 44 migrants deported on Monday had tested positive. Earlier in the week, Hugo Monroy, Guatemala's top health official, said around 75% of migrants on a deportation flight in late March had tested positive. 

The report and Monroy's declaration suggest the number of COVID-19 cases is higher than the count the Guatemalan government is publicly disclosing, and could makeup a substantial part of the overall number of coronavirus infections in Guatemala. 

As of Thursday, the Central American country continued to have relatively few cases in comparison to hard-hit nations like the U.S., where the virus has infected hundreds of thousands and killed more than 34,000. On Friday, Guatemala reported 235 cases and at least 7 deaths.

ICE has maintained it is overseeing adequate protocols when deporting migrants during the pandemic. The agency said anyone who fails to pass medical screenings and temperature checks before being deported will not be allowed to board flights. Migrants with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher before boarding a flight will receive further medical evaluation, according to ICE. 

At least 105 immigrants in more than two dozen county jails and privately operated prisons used by ICE have tested positive for the virus as of Friday, according to the agency. At least 25 direct ICE employees at detention centers have also tested positive, including 13 at the facility in Alexandria, Louisiana, where deportation flights take off several times a week.

In response to the pandemic, ICE has released nearly 700 immigrants at risk of becoming severely ill if infected by the virus because of their medical conditions and age. The agency has also announced a policy to consider the release of older immigrants and pregnant women.

But ICE is still detaining more than 32,000 immigrants whom the government wants to deport, and advocates have continued to call for the release of more detainees, including the thousands of asylum-seekers being held by the agency.

CDC officials did not respond to a request to elaborate on the agency's work in Guatemala.

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