Fact Check

No, Biden Isn't Letting Thousands of ‘Illegal Immigrants’ into US Without COVID Testing

This is not the first time in history that immigrants have been accused of spreading disease.

Published Aug 12, 2021

 (Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons)
Image Via Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons
Under U.S. President Joe Biden's administration, border control agencies are allowing thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of illegal immigrants into the U.S. without testing, vaccinating, or quarantining them for COVID-19, contributing to a surge in new COVID-19 cases.
What's True

A few reported instances have shown Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) releasing asylum seekers who tested positive for COVID-19 to nonprofits and immigration-focused organizations without notifying them first, though they were quarantined right after. Vaccination implementation remains inadequate, according to some whistleblowers. There are also many reports of lack of testing in ICE detention centers. However...

What's False

Migrants are not behind the surge in COVID-19 cases across the country. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) says it provides personal protective equipment and masks, and also send migrants to local health facilities for testing, diagnosis, and treatment. ICE statistics and policies governing their interactions with partner agencies also show they conduct testing of migrants at high risk of COVID-19. ICE has also begun vaccinating immigrants held in detention, although the implementation is reportedly inadequate.

What's Undetermined

It is difficult to determine the exact numbers of migrants released without COVID-19 tests or vaccinations.

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Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a debate has arisen over the influx of migrants from the U.S.-Mexico border, and their alleged role in spreading the virus in the United States. The argument that they have played such a role was repeated by Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on Fox News and in his public statements, and by right-wing news outlets like Breitbart. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis also said, "I can tell you, whatever variants are around the world, they're coming across that southern border."

Our readers referenced a Fox News report from border town McAllen, Texas, which said around 7,000 migrants who tested positive for COVID-19 after being released by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) — and were later quarantined by Catholic Charities — have been released into the city since February 2021. We received questions about circulating claims to the effect that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration was allowing "hundreds of thousands" of “illegal” migrants to enter the country without being testing for COVID-19, quarantining, or even getting vaccinated.

According to numerous public health experts, and as reported by The Associated Press and The Washington Post, migrants and asylum seekers are not behind a surge in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. In fact, they enter the country through a process of detainment, where high-risk people are tested by health services, with some being isolated, and some getting vaccinations.

How does the process at the border start? According to data released from Customs and Border Protection (CBP), officials logged around 1.1 million "apprehensions" at the U.S.-Mexico border this fiscal year until June 2021. Some 34% of those crossing the border in June had tried to cross the border at least once before in the past year. According to a Washington Post analysis, apprehensions at the border fall under two categories: Title 8 and Title 42. The former involves apprehending someone at the border and taking the person to a detention facility. The latter, which was implemented under former U.S. President Donald Trump, allows border officials to use the pandemic as a reason to immediately turn people away at the border.

According to CBP numbers, hundreds of thousands of people apprehended at the border were almost immediately expelled under Title 42, or on COVID-19 grounds. According to The Associated Press, the CBP stopped and expelled 82% of single adults attempting to enter the country in June 2021, for example. So the claim that "hundreds of thousands" of migrants were entering the country is belied by the fact that many recorded apprehensions have resulted in immediate expulsion on health grounds.

But according to The Washington Post that still leaves many migrants in U.S. custody, including around 75,000 in June 2021 alone. Those migrants are put through a range of processes depending on their health, symptoms, and more. We reached out to the CBP, who gave us this statement:

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. We value our partners in local communities whose work is critical to moving individuals safely out of CBP/USBP custody and through the appropriate immigration pathway.

While CBP does not appear to be testing everyone in custody, the agency does transfer migrants to other health facilities and federal agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where the procedures vary. ICE claims to test everyone in its custody. According to its COVID-19 response requirements, the agency does, “Test all newly detained persons before they join the rest of the population in the detention facility.” Border Patrol officials in Texas said that they simply did not have the capacity to test everyone for coronavirus upon arrival and doing so would force migrants to remain in crowded facilities for longer, leaving it to nonprofits like Catholic Charities to arrange testing.

According to The Associated Press, ICE also began vaccinating detained immigrants, and the government innoculated unaccompanied children over 12 with the Pfizer vaccine. ICE told CNN in July that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had begun administering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, with an initial allocation of 10,000 doses that would be replenished on a rolling basis. As of early July, more than 8,000 ICE detainees had received one dose of a vaccine, and 1,307 received two doses.

Now, whether these official policies are being effectively applied is another story. According to one report by The Washington Post, there have been numerous recorded instances of ICE failing to notify partner agencies of known COVID-positive asylum seekers arriving in their midst. In such cases, the immigrants had to handle the notifying themselves, like a man from Cameroon who asked volunteers meeting him to “Stand back” when he arrived in a California border city. Many advocates have complained that ICE had given them no advance notice. Some advocates say that migrants are catching COVID-19 once they're in the U.S. because of poor planning by ICE, and not bringing it in themselves. In August 2021, reports emerged of a COVID outbreak in a Tacoma, Washington, facility housing ICE detainees, infecting around 150 since June. Other reports detail how asylum seekers are being released without receiving their COVID-19 test results in states like Louisiana and Mississippi, though these do not number in the hundreds of thousands.

Whistleblowers from the DHS sent a letter in late June to Biden administration officials urging them to do more work vaccinating immigrants in federal custody. They claimed that immigrant detention facilities “continue to be a significant source of spread for COVID and [cause] disproportionate harm to detainees, workers and the public, yet DHS has still not implemented a comprehensive plan to address the spread of COVID in immigration detention facilities.”

What about the thousands who are reportedly being released in Texas? The data being shared by conservative media about the 7,000 migrants in McAllen, Texas, who tested positive, lacks context. According to American Immigration Council’s Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, who spoke to The Washington Post, “Migrants are in many ways the most tested group in the country. No other group of people in the entire country is being tested at a near-100 percent rate. So when we talk about infection rates of migrants, what we actually know is that a lot of people who are testing positive are asymptomatic; who, if they were in the United States, would have just never been tested.”

Migrants who test positive are moved to hotels and other spaces to quarantine, for the most part. Indeed, the Fox News article about McAllen stated, “Immigrants released by CBP are dropped off with Catholic Charities and tested for COVID by a third party. If they test positive, they are asked to quarantine and offered a room at a quarantine site.” (This particular statement did not appear in an archived version of the Fox News story, but cropped up later.) As of August 2021, an estimated 2,000 migrants are being quarantined in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, after testing positive.

Public health experts by and large agree that the rise in COVID-19 cases in the U.S. is not due to migrants who are isolated and tested in larger numbers than communities in the United States. Dr. Joseph McCormick, a physician and former CDC epidemiologist, told The Associated Press that the number of migrants entering the country is too small to be behind the uptick in cases. COVID-19 has been spreading outside of border states, and many argue it is due in part to the large numbers of unvaccinated people already in the country.

Dr. Iván Meléndez, a health official in Hidalgo County said in an August press conference, "Is this a pandemic of the migrants? No, it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated." According to a New York Times report, in Hidalgo County, Texas, the migrant positivity rate was about 16 percent in early August 2021, compared with 17.59 percent for residents.

The exact total number of asylum seekers who were released untested, unvaccinated, or positive with COVID-19 to third parties are difficult to determine. We know based on a number of cases publicly available to us that a few hundred fell through the cracks over an extended period of time largely due to federal agencies inefficiencies, but those groups are not responsible for the surge in cases overall.

Overall, the assertion that thousands of migrants entering the country are not being tested, quarantined, or vaccinated, and are spreading COVID-19 as a result, is incorrect. However, it appears federal agencies could do more to ensure effective health facilities are provided to migrants and comprehensive vaccination plans are developed. As such, we rate this claim as “Mostly False.”

Nur Nasreen Ibrahim is a reporter with experience working in television, international news coverage, fact checking, and creative writing.