Guatemala Says US Testing Deportees for Virus Before Sending

May 1, 2020
10:03 AM

A man is disinfected by a health worker at the site where Guatemalans returned from the U.S. are being held in Guatemala City, Friday, April 17, 2020. (AP Photo/Moisés Castillo)

By By SONIA PÉREZ D., Associated Press

GUATEMALA CITY (AP) — A planeload of 89 Guatemalan deportees that arrived Thursday all tested negative for the coronavirus before boarding their flight from Texas, Guatemalan officials said Thursday.

The major change in how the U.S. handles its deportation flights to Guatemala comes after two weeks in which Guatemala refused to accept more flights.

Guatemala’s foreign ministry said Thursday’s flight did not signify that flights had officially resumed and it did not know when there would be another one, perhaps suggesting it was a test.

“It’s under negotiation,” the ministry said.

The government had suspended the flights after at least 44 deportees on an April 13 flight from Louisiana tested positive for the virus.

That had been the first day of resumed flights after a previous suspension that followed a March 26 flight on which the majority of the deportees also tested positive. President Alejandro Giammattei recently referred to it as “that damned flight,” showing his frustration with a topic that has become sensitive domestically as the country’s teetering health system tries to confront the virus’ spread.

In total, at least 100 Guatemalans deported from the U.S. between late March and mid-April have tested positive for the virus. The April 13 flight of infected deportees so unnerved Guatemala’s government that the U.S. sent a team from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Guatemala to verify the tests.

Since at least March, the government had been asking its U.S. counterparts to certify the health of deportees before putting them on flights. Until now, that had meant only checking their temperature or looking for other symptoms.

It appeared Guatemala’s two-week suspension finally moved the U.S. government to test deportees.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed in response to questions from The Associated Press that it tested the Guatemalans before they boarded the flight to their homeland.

ICE said it plans to test all migrants before they are deported from the U.S., as well as all those in its custody, but doesn’t yet have enough tests to do so. It’s receiving about 2,000 a month from the Department of Health and Human Services, it said.

The agency said it “will prioritize testing based on evolving operational considerations,” without providing details.

As of Thursday, ICE had confirmed 490 virus cases among detainees since the outbreak began and has conducted 1,030 tests. ICE has nearly 30,000 people in immigration custody across the U.S.

The issue had become sensitive for Giammattei at home in Guatemala, where there was a growing fear and accounts of harassment of deportees because people feared they carried the virus.

Last week, Giammattei said in an interview that some countries were helping Guatemala with financial and medical resources to confront the virus while others “have sent us infected deportees, but not a dime.”

Last Friday, President Donald Trump called the presidents of Honduras and El Salvador to offer encouragement and medical equipment while praising their assistance in controlling immigration. Giammattei was notably not included among those calls.

“To the United States it sounds bad that a little country wants to push its luck and blame them for deporting infected deportees, even though it’s true,” said Renso Rosal, a Guatemalan political analyst.