WASHINGTON - A deportation flight scheduled for Somalia this week may include passengers with COVID-19 symptoms, according to immigration lawyers, advocates and at least one congressional lawmaker, raising new concerns the United States may be exporting the coronavirus to other countries.
The flight, which could take off as early as Wednesday, is expected to carry roughly 90 people, according to advocates who spoke to CQ Roll Call. Most are Somali nationals from Minnesota, which has the biggest Somali immigrant community in the country. Lawyers and advocates fear most are not being adequately tested.
"We have now learned that at least one detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 and that others are showing symptoms," Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday.
"Let's be clear - deporting people who have COVID-19 is pure cruelty - not just for the individuals themselves, but for the countless who could contract the illness. And we know that ICE has done this before."
Omar first brought attention to the situation in a letter she sent last week to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that expressed "grave concerns" and asked a series of questions about the impending flight.
ICE did not respond directly to questions about the Somalis being prepared for deportation.
"Due to operational security, we are only able to confirm removal flights once they have landed in a designated country," an agency spokesperson said by email, later adding: "Once the flight has landed, I will be able to track if anyone on board was tested."
ICE expects each country to meet its international obligation to accept its own nationals, the spokesperson said. "The health, welfare and safety of ICE detainees is one of the agency's highest priorities. Since the onset of COVID-19, ICE has regularly updated infection prevention and control protocols to help prevent potential exposure among detainees."
The spokesperson said ICE has been screening individuals scheduled to be deported for elevated temperatures since March, and provides masks to wear for the duration of the flight, but did not note any screening procedures for asymptomatic individuals.
Omar noted that Somalia, which has only 15 hospitals with intensive care units for a population of 15 million, has refused to take deportees who are positive for COVID-19.