de Wolff: ICE, Department of Immigration and Covid Exposure?

The Biden administration should require the vaccination of migrants apprehended at the border.

by Thomas de Wolff | 9/23/21 4:00am

President Joe Biden has repeatedly denounced the ongoing “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” On Oct. 1, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will require immigrants who wish to become lawful permanent residents to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 before their paperwork can be finalized. Similarly, federal employees will be required to be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22. These new mandates — along with a vaccine mandate for companies with over 100 employees — are a continuation of the push by the Biden administration to increase vaccinations. While these moves are important, another necessary measure to fight the virus would be to vaccinate migrants caught entering the country.

Why not simply require that anyone who enters the United States already be vaccinated? The Biden administration seems unable to prevent unauthorized border crossings; successful illegal border crossings have numbered well over 1,000 per day in recent months, as measured by the number of people detained after crossing. Given this fact, it seems more reasonable to simply require the vaccination of any migrants or asylum seekers taken into custody. Furthermore, the majority of Central and South American countries have vaccination rates that are much lower than the United States — less than one in three Mexicans are fully vaccinated, for example — which has caused infection rates in countries south of the border to jump over the past few months. Most migrants are thus likely to arrive unvaccinated, so all the more reason to vaccinate them as soon as they make contact with U.S. officials. 

In July, just 45 percent of migrants and asylum seekers at the Southern border were turned back — the lowest percentage since Biden’s inauguration. This influx has contributed to the present overcrowding in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers — since the end of the Trump administration, the number of people in ICE custody has increased by 50% to more than 26,000 as of last week. Since April, more than 7,500 new coronavirus cases have been reported in these centers.. Clearly, these detention centers are full of vulnerable people — they should be vaccinated to prevent outbreaks. 

Outbreaks in ICE detention centers also affect their surrounding communities. Several factors contribute to this spread: ICE personnel have been denounced for not taking adequate safety precautions like wearing masks, many of the centers are in states with relatively low vaccination rates and detainees are moved from center to center before being tested. This last factor can expose others to the virus if they come into contact with someone from a center with an ongoing outbreak — and potentially spread an outbreak to a new center.

During the early days of the pandemic, a letter to Congress from medical specialists within DHS outlined the repercussions of housing so many unvaccinated people together. Dozens of these overcrowded detention centers are in remote areas with limited access to healthcare facilities. Consequently, patients from the centers overwhelm local hospital systems in these areas, taking up already scarce hospital beds. 

Given that there are fewer than 30,000 people in ICE custody, the U.S.’ massive surplus of vaccine doses would hardly be depleted if ICE were provided with enough vaccines for all of its detainees. Border states such as Texas and Arizona have had hundreds of thousands of extra doses delivered to them. Furthermore, even though many migrants are not held in detention facilities for long periods of time, it would not be a logistical challenge to vaccinate such a large population. The CDC estimates that it would take only six days to vaccinate 30,000 people at a single vaccination site — so with migrants spread across multiple sites, it should take even less time. Using the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine would likely be optimal, as many migrants are held in detention centers for less than a day, but for migrants who may be present for a month or more, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which require two doses, could also be used. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has said that the federal government’s primary responsibility is to protect the American public from the pandemic. If the Biden administration truly wishes to do so, as their recent mandates ostensibly demonstrate, then they should vaccinate the tens of thousands of immigrants who have fallen into their care. Doing so will represent a victory in the battle against the pandemic of the unvaccinated.

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