On March 28th, two days after he was deported to Guatemala from a detention center in Arizona, a twenty-nine-year-old man, from a village in the country’s western highlands, became known as Patient 36. Up to that point, there had been thirty-five registered cases of COVID-19 in Guatemala, and Patient 36 was the first returning deportee to test positive for the illness. He had been put on a plane—part of a deportation fleet known as ICE Air—with forty other passengers, most of whom, like him, had spent several weeks in detention. After landing, they were briefly held in Guatemala City and evaluated, but, because the authorities claimed that he showed no symptoms, he was allowed to travel to his family’s home, in Momostenango, Totonicapán, where six other relatives, including a nine-month-old baby, lived. By the time he got there, he had a fever and a cough. A local health official told the newspaper El Periódico that the man’s wife had known that he was ill before he left the capital. She alerted a medical clinic in town, which tested him. Almost a week later, the Guatemalan government announced that another deportee—a thirty-one-year-old man from Mazatenango, about eighty kilometres south of Momostenango—had also tested positive, making him Patient 49.
Guatemala, a nation of eighteen million people, has only two large urban hospitals and a regional patchwork of smaller medical facilities; its capacity to contain a virulent pandemic is limited. The government of President Alejandro Giammattei, who is a trained surgeon, suspended international flights into the country, and border transit largely ceased. But an obvious question was whether the government could persuade the Trump Administration to help it limit the spread of the coronavirus—the United States was fast becoming the global epicenter of the pandemic. As of late last month, there were some five thousand Guatemalans in U.S. immigration detention, and every week the Department of Homeland Security was sending between one and five flights to Guatemala City, each carrying up to a hundred and thirty-five deportees.
Other countries in the region have been forced to deal with deportees infected with the virus, including Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, and Haiti, many of which have fragile heath-care systems, scant hospital space, and a dearth of ventilators. The United States deported eighteen thousand people in March, and nearly three thousand in the first eleven days of April. By then, the Trump Administration had also effectively sealed the U.S. border to immigrants, ending asylum and turning away tens of thousands of people, including unaccompanied children. The coronavirus was a convenient pretext for curbing immigration in all forms; President Trump, at the behest of his senior adviser Stephen Miller, also announced cuts to pending green-card applications. According to the Times, Miller, who within six months of Trump’s taking office had tried to convince the President to limit immigration in the name of public health, frequently described migrants as “vectors of disease.” Late last week, Miller’s wife, an aide to Vice-President Mike Pence, tested positive for COVID-19, raising questions about the U.S. government’s ability to shield its own top officials from the virus at a time when the American death toll has reached eighty thousand.
The irony has not been lost on Central Americans, because it is the United States that currently poses a public-health threat to them. In mid-April, there were more than six hundred thousand known cases in the United States, compared with a total of less than eight hundred in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala combined. Nevertheless, when the Guatemalan government temporarily suspended the arrival of some deportation flights, to buy time to test other deportees, Trump signed an order threatening to impose a raft of sanctions on countries that “denied” or “delayed” the reception of deportees. “The U.S. was being heavy-headed, and the Guatemalans didn’t want to pay too high a price,” a person advising the Guatemalan government told me. “They don’t want the wrath of the U.S. right now.”
The flights resumed, and, a few days later, Guatemala’s health minister, Hugo Monroy, announced that between fifty and seventy-five per cent of deportees who had just arrived in the country were found to be infected. In mid-April, the authorities said that seventy-four cases had originated from just two deportation flights. U.S. officials considered this an exaggeration, and sent scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to conduct tests. Those results confirmed the Guatemalan government’s analysis: when twelve deportees were selected at random, they all tested positive. By the end of the month, roughly twenty per cent of the nearly seven hundred confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Guatemala were people who had been deported from the U.S. “We must not stigmatize,” Monroy said. “But I have to speak clearly. The arrival of deportees who have tested positive has really increased the number of cases.” The United States, he added, had become “the Wuhan of the Americas.”
There are two broad ways of understanding the public-health dangers posed by current U.S. immigration policy. One is as a reflection of the Administration’s callous and politically shortsighted regard for the wider region. “Decisions are always screened through the lens of whether or not they help POTUS’s reëlection,” an American official told me. “The White House doesn’t have time for Guatemala’s bullshit. Deportations must continue.” The second way concerns the management of American detention centers, in which some thirty thousand people are being held in substandard conditions that heighten the risk of spreading disease. The agency in charge of detention, ICE, spent the first two months of the pandemic insisting that detainees were safe, but it was slow to conduct testing. Many detainees across the country, who say that they “don’t want to die in here,” have launched hunger strikes to protest conditions in which social distancing is virtually impossible. An asylum-seeking Cuban doctor, who is being held in a privately run facility in Louisiana, told the Mississippi Free Press, “There’s no way to ‘distance’ here. We sleep in bunk beds on top of each other, in columns with less than a few feet between us, head to toe. We use the same cafeteria as those in quarantine with no cleaning in between. . . . My medical opinion is that many people will die.”
Most detention centers were punishing places before the pandemic. In 2017, ICE inspectors found that the medical unit at a facility in Irwin County, Georgia, which had a long history of sanitation and health-care infractions, fell short of federal standards. Little seems to have been done there to institute precautions or protocol since the coronavirus outbreak. According to a report by Type Investigations, a woman who arrived at the facility in late March told the staff that she felt sick—she had a cough—but they ignored her. She later joined more than seventy other women in a dorm area in which the beds are less than three feet apart. It’s unclear whether the woman was infected, but someone in the facility was; in April, a guard and a detainee tested positive for COVID-19.