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Guatemala expands testing of deportees arriving from US

GUATEMALA CITY – Guatemala has started testing all deportees arriving on flights from the United States for COVID-19 if anyone on their flight tests positive for the disease, a government spokesperson said Wednesday, a day after the health minister said deportees were driving up the country's caseload.

Health Ministry spokeswoman Ana Lucía Gudiel said that when Guatemala resumed receiving deportation flights on Monday after a one week pause, the government began sending any deportees who showed symptoms for immediate testing while the rest were isolated at a shelter at the airport.

If any of those tests comes back positive, all deportees aboard that flight are tested, she said. If they are negative, all the deportees are sent home within a couple days and told to self-quarantine inside their homes. Previously, only those who displayed symptoms upon arrival were tested while the rest were sent home with instructions to quarantine themselves.

The new shelter is located at Guatemala City's international airport where the flights arrived. Circulated photographs of the area show thin foam pads laid out on the floor inside an area of the terminal.

Health Minister Hugo Monroy did not answer requests for comment Wednesday. On Tuesday, he brought the country's reporting of infected deportees into question by mentioning a flight where 50% to 75% of the passengers were later found to be infected.

Presidential spokesman Carlos Sandoval later said Monroy was referring to a March 26 flight from Mesa, Arizona. The government said that plane carried 41 passengers. That would mean that 20 to 30 deportees were infected, whereas prior to Monroy's comments the government had reported only three infected deportees. It raised that number to four later Tuesday.

Asked about Monroy's comments, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which arranges the flights said in a written response: “The health and safety of migrants in our care and custody is one of our highest priorities. Every ICE detainee must pass a health screening by a flight medical provider or they will be denied boarding and referred to an ICE approved facility for additional screening. DHS and ICE will continue to work with the Government of Guatemala to ensure their citizens return safely to their home country, and together protect the health and security of our nations.”

Guatemala again began receiving deportation flights from the United States after a one-week pause prompted by three deportees testing positive for COVID-19.

The Guatemalan government had asked the United States to not send more than 25 deportees per flight, to give them health exams before departure and to certify that they were not infected. But on Monday the U.S. sent nearly 200 deportees aboard two planes.

ICE does not typically disclose details about how and when it removes people but says there was an April 14 flight to Guatemala that left from San Antonio with 112 people on board. All were medically cleared before takeoff. The agency says any detainee with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher is not allowed to board a flight and is sent for further evaluation and observation.

U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement said Wednesday the total number of detainees who have tested positive rose to 89, with 15 at the privately run Otay Mesa Detention Center in San Diego. The United States holds about 34,000 people in immigration detention, down from about 37,000 last month.

Since March 13, when Guatemala declared a health emergency, the Guatemalan Immigration Institute says that more than 1,600 deportees have arrived from the U.S. including 245 minors.

U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, who was born in Guatemala, said Wednesday in a statement that the Trump administration was not using common sense in continuing deportations to less-developed countries during a pandemic.

“If the Trump Administration continues its callous deportation policies through the midst of this pandemic, the results will be predictable and tragic,” she said. “From the beginning of this Administration, deportations have been a way to outsource our challenges to other nations. Coronavirus changes that – these deportations are exporting death.”

Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei said Tuesday there were a total of 175 people who had tested positive for COVID-19 in Guatemala and five who had died.

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Fox reported from Washington.