The labor union for ICE officers has filed two workplace safety complaints about the Biden administration’s handling of illegal immigrants and COVID-19 at the border, saying federal employees processing and releasing the migrants face conditions that amount to “a death trap.”
The complaints say many of the federal workers are contracting COVID-19.
A Texas processing facility designed to hold fewer than 1,000 people at times has topped 4,000 per day. Employees have been falling ill after spending time in close quarters with illegal immigrants, who generally aren’t tested for coronavirus infection, according to the complaints.
The ICE employees work in a space right next to the sick ward, separated only by plastic sheeting. The facilities aren’t sterilized after a COVID-19 diagnosis, the National ICE Council told the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
“Many ICE officers are testing positive for COVID, in addition to lung infections, viral infections, diarrhea, etc.” the complaint charges.
At the Anzalduas Port of Entry, officers share port-a-potties with migrants who have not yet been tested for infection, the second complaint says.
Filing the complaints with OSHA was an attempt to use the Biden administration’s regulatory machinery against itself. The ICE union hopes to force the government to follow some of the same standards in handling illegal immigrants that President Biden has attempted to impose on American workers and businesses.
“It’s an absolute act of desperation on our part,” Chris Crane, president of the council, told The Washington Times. “We’re just trying to save officers’ lives down there.”
OSHA confirmed it received the complaints and had open inspections at the Donna facility and the port of entry. The agency said it has six months to complete the inspection and no additional information will be available until afterward.
Still, Mr. Crane said, the rest of the unsafe conditions are unresolved.
The presence of ICE officers at the two Texas locations is unusual. Border Patrol agents normally would handle all the duties at Donna, and Customs and Border Protection officers would work at the port. ICE would pick things up when custody has been transferred.
With migrants arriving in record numbers, however, the Homeland Security Department deployed ICE officers to help at CBP facilities.
The Donna facility was set up in February, early in a migrant surge that has plagued the Biden administration. The Border Patrol made about 98,000 arrests that month. It made more than 200,000 in July and more than 185,000 in September.
All of those arrests have to be processed through Border Patrol facilities, and roughly half are expelled back across the border under an emergency pandemic border shutdown order. The others are either caught and released or turned over to ICE or other federal agencies.
Homeland Security’s handling of migrants with COVID-19 risks has been controversial from the start.
Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’ early claims that migrants were being tested turned out to be false. Facing criticism, the department reached agreements with local nonprofits and, in one case in Del Rio, Texas, signed a contract with a company to conduct testing.
That usually happens after Border Patrol processing and after government authorities determine whether to expel the migrants or allow them to stay in the U.S. — either in custody or in communities.
When migrants are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE is supposed to be quarantining and testing.
If Border Patrol agents are catching and releasing the migrants at the border, the nonprofits do the testing. They also are supposed to handle quarantining, but they say they don’t have the power to enforce quarantines if migrants want to leave.
One of the new OSHA complaints asserts that migrants released from the Donna facility who test positive for COVID-19 are turned over to the local Catholic Charities chapter, which shelters them in a hotel for three days before releasing them.
Mr. Mayorkas told Congress this fall that 20% of migrants were ill.
Mr. Crane said the lack of precautions for federal employees at the border contrasts with the Biden administration’s moves to impose vaccine mandates on employees and contractors.
“It’s infuriating to us to see the lies from this administration in that vaccine executive order that they are using all these ‘science-based measures,’ is how they’re referred to, to save the lives of these federal employees, and down there [at Donna], science-based, common-sense-based protection is out the window,” he said.
“This is why they won’t let the media in there: because they don’t want the media to see how extremely inhumane this is to the aliens and to our employees. It’s a death trap,” he said.
Mr. Biden’s vaccine mandate applies to federal employees and contractors.
Declaring that “our patience is wearing thin,” the president also ordered OSHA to come up with a mandated rule for corporations that employ more than 100 people. Those rules, revealed Thursday, offer employees a choice of either vaccination or weekly testing and mandatory masks.
The American Federation of Government Employees units that represent federal Bureau of Prisons workers nationally and in Miami filed a lawsuit arguing that the mandate violates their constitutional rights and short-cut procedural steps.
The ICE Council is also part of AFGE.
Their OSHA complaints say ICE has been made aware of the conditions its employees face.
The Times reached out to the agency for a response. It’s not clear how many ICE employees are fully vaccinated.
Before their relocation last month, ICE officers at the Donna facility were assigned to a workspace next to the sick ward with no negative pressure rooms or other ways to seal off the sick area’s ventilation.
Every 45 minutes, newly arrived migrants were marched through the ICE officers’ workspace, the complaint said.
In addition to COVID-19 risks, the two OSHA complaints cite water leaking under the walls and running over electrical conduits.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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