EXCLUSIVE: 'It's a death trap': ICE officers file OSHA complaint over illegal immigrant COVID risks

EXCLUSIVE: 'It's a death trap': ICE officers file OSHA
complaint over illegal immigrant COVID risks 1

The labor union for ICE officers has filed two workplace safety complaints over the Biden administration’s handling of illegal immigrants and COVID at the border, saying federal employees forced to process and release the migrants face conditions that amount to “a death trap.”

The complaints say many of the federal workers are contracting COVID.

A Texas processing facility designed to hold fewer than 1,000 people had at times topped 4,000 per day, and employees have been falling ill after spending time in close quarters with illegal immigrants who generally aren’t tested for coronavirus, according to the complaints.

The ICE employees themselves also aren’t tested, despite being forced to work in a space right next to the sick ward, separated only by plastic sheeting. And the facilities aren’t even sterilized after someone contracts COVID, 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 are forced to share port-a-johns with migrants who have not yet been COVID-tested, the second complaint says.

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Filing the complaints with OSHA was an attempt to use the Biden administration’s own regulatory machinery against it. The ICE union is hoping 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.”

The National ICE Council, the bargaining unit for thousands of ICE officers, said OSHA replied with a request to supply names of people at the facilities who could shed light on the situation.

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 made available until after the inspection has concluded.

In late October, after the OSHA complaints were filed, ICE officers’ space was relocated inside the Donna facility and they no longer mingle with each new arriving busload of migrants.

But Mr. Crane said the rest of the unsafe conditions remain.

The presence of ICE officers at the two Texas locations is unusual. Normally Border Patrol agents would be handling all the duties at Donna, and Customs and Border Protection officers would handle the port. ICE would pick things up when custody has been transferred.

But with migrants arriving in record numbers this year, Homeland Security deployed ICE officers into CBP facilities to help out.

The Donna facility was set up in February, early in a migrant surge that’s 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, with roughly half of them 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 risks has been controversial from the start.

Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas’s early claims that migrants were being tested turned out not to be true. Facing criticism, the department reached agreements with local nonprofits and, in one case in Del Rio, Texas, signed a contract with a company to do testing.

But that usually happens after the migrants have been through Border Patrol processing and the government decides whether it can expel them back to Mexico under a pandemic health emergency, or whether they will be allowed to stay — either in custody or released into communities.

When they are turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE is supposed to be quarantining and testing.

If Border Patrol agents are instead catching and releasing the migrants at the border, testing is done by the nonprofits, who are also supposed to handle quarantining. But the nonprofits say they don’t have the power to enforce a quarantine if migrants want to leave.

One of the new OSHA complaints asserts that migrants released from the Donna facility who test positive for COVID are turned over to the local Catholic Charities chapter, which houses 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 ICE Council isn’t the only union to object to the administration’s handling of things.

The American Federation of Government Employees units that represent federal Bureau of Prisons workers nationally and in Miami filed a lawsuit arguing 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 last month’s relocation, ICE officers at the Donna facility were assigned to a workspace next to the sick ward. There are no negative pressure rooms or ways to seal off the sick area’s ventilation.

And every 45 minutes, newly arrived migrants were marched through the ICE officers’ workspace, the complaint said.

In addition to COVID risks, the two OSHA complaints cite water leaking under the walls and running over electrical conduits.

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