“Without stronger COVID-19 prevention measures in place, DHS is putting its workforce, support staff, communities, and migrants at greater risk of contracting the virus,” concluded the report, which comes amid the global pandemic.
The review, conducted between March and May, unearthed several issues with the agency’s Covid-19 management efforts at the southwest border.
The report noted that US Customs and Border Protection, which is overseen by DHS and is responsible for short-term migrant detention, is not able to maintain proper physical distancing in holding facilities because of the number of migrants illegally entering the United States and the inability of other government agencies to rapidly take custody of migrants. Extended time in custody leads to overcapacity and overcrowding at Border Patrol stations.
Additionally, the Covid-19 testing process for families that have left CBP custody is “not effective because municipalities cannot force families to isolate for the required quarantine period,” according to the report.
CBP is not required to and does not conduct Covid-19 testing for migrants who enter custody. Instead, the agency relies on local public health systems to test symptomatic individuals.
The process in place to obtain testing for migrants “may not always be operationally feasible, especially during an influx of migrant crossings at the southwest border,” according to the report. In one US Border Patrol region, agents told the watchdog that relying solely on local health systems in remote border communities is not a sustainable testing plan.
A DHS spokesperson told CNN in a statement Wednesday that “CBP provides migrants 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, and treatment. CBP takes its responsibility to prevent the spread of communicable diseases very seriously,” the statement continued.
The watchdog recommended that the department reassess its Covid-19 response framework to address areas for improvement and that the DHS secretary ensure that component agencies continue to coordinate with the DHS chief medical officer and are provided the resources needed to operate safely and effectively.
DHS agreed with both recommendations.