More than two dozen immigrants, including children, have died in U.S. government custody since President Donald Trump took office.
The judicial branch has had to force Trump’s administration to provide basic hygiene tools like toothpaste to detained migrant children.
Now, his immigration officials are saying they will not act to prevent influenza from spreading in their cramped, overcrowded immigration jails at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Flu played a role in at least three of the roughly 30 known migrant deaths in custody confirmed since January 2017. Vaccines are cheap and the highly controlled nature of incarcerated populations makes it relatively easy to reach the high innoculation rates that can radically reduce the reach of the illness in any given flu season.
Still, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said it will not bother issuing the shots “due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and the complexities of operating vaccination programs.”
In early August, Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA) pressed Trump cabinet officials to lay out plans for migrant detention center health policies ahead of flu season. The two lawmakers forwarded a detailed series of questions and best-practices recommendations for managing infectious disease risks among the detained migrant population. The agencies have not yet responded to the letter, DeLauro’s office told ThinkProgress.
The epidemiologists’ letter identifies three kids who’ve died in custody of flu complications since December 2018: an eight-year old boy named Felipe, a two-year old named Wilmer, and a 16-year-old named Carlos. The government’s migrant detention system appears to be exhibiting a dramatically higher flu death rate for children than the country as a whole, the doctors noted, “with at least three deaths in as many as 200,000 children detained” compared to just “one reported death per 600,000 children” in the general population last flu season.
Put another way: Kids in detention appear to be dying of flu at nine times the rate they should be.
The border camps CBP operates are only one element of the broader migrant-detention dragnet Trump’s team has expanded. But there is little reason to think things are any better at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities to which many migrants are eventually transferred. Privately run immigration jails that contract with ICE have repeatedly quarantined hundreds or thousands of detainees to limit outbreaks of other infectious diseases like mumps.
Slack medical care and cheapskate health practices are commonplace in privatized jails and prisons, whether they hold undocumented immigrants or U.S. citizens who committed a crime. There is little profit in providing high-quality proactive medical care to jailed people, after all. Horror stories about for-profit prison medicine vendors leaving people needlessly blinded or exposed to disease are all too familiar.
But the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) agencies that run immigration detention facilities at the border and in the interior of the country appear to be particularly egregious in their handling of the human beings they cage.
The DHS Inspector General has issued multiple reports blasting both ICE and CBP over the unsanitary conditions and lack of adequate medical care in their facilities. Officials observed widespread mold and other alarming conditions “including nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues” at a pair of ICE facilities in New Jersey and California in 2018. A separate report on CBP’s facilities based on spot-checks this June warned of dangerous overcrowding, malnutrition requiring medical attention, and other unhygienic conditions.
The Trump administration announced plans for a major restructuring of migrant detention systems on Wednesday, unveiling regulations intended to maintain his preferred policy of indefinite detention even for families with small children. The new policy will require court approval and lawsuits to stop it are almost certain. If successful, however, the move would end a long-standing 20-day limit on the detention of immigrant children under an important court agreement known as Flores.
It is worth noting the administration’s underlying attitude toward the people it has targeted for such expansive detention and petty, quotidian trauma.
Stephen Miller, widely identified as the man in charge of executing the details of Trump’s policies toward migrants from South and Central America, has openly asserted that immigration from white European countries is preferable to Latinx, Hispanic, or Chicano immigration.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who established the family separation system that led to the caging of children in the first place, was fond of warning about the percentage of the U.S. population that had been born in another country.
The president himself has repeatedly warned of an “invasion” of non-white immigrants — a xenophobic rabble-rousing rally cry that had simmered in right-wing media circles and white supremacist message boards long before Trump attached the White House seal to it.
A smaller cadre of elected Republicans has doggedly smuggled this kind of dehumanizing rhetoric into their party’s main vein over the past decade-plus. Rep. Steve King (R-IA) is only the most famously flagrant example.
Rep. Ted Poe used to compare migrants crossing the southern border to locusts. Arizona Republicans Russell Pearce and John Kavanagh spent years talking “invasion” and cultural conquest.
If you saw the people in your care as fully human, flu shots ahead of flu season would be a no-brainer. But if you see them as something other than people — a plague, an invasion, a foreign body that “makes our country poorer and dirtier” — why would you bother?