Flight carrying deportee with COVID-19 lands in El Paso; safety of airport employees questioned

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Activist, City Council member worried about airport workers possibly exposed to virus while servicing ICE flights

In this May 25, 2010 file photo, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent walks down the aisle among shackled Mexican immigrants a boarded a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement charter jet for deportation in the air between Chicago, Il. and Harlingen, Texas. A Homeland Security Department internal watchdog says U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement could have saved millions of dollars on charter flights carrying deported immigrants to their home countries by not leaving seats empty. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) — A City Council member is concerned about the health of local airport employees, after learning that a flight carrying a deportee who later tested positive for COVID-19 made a stop in El Paso last week.

The man was on an airplane chartered by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that flew out of Phoenix, made a stop in El Paso and continued on to Guatemala, a member of the El Paso Anti-Deportation Squad told Council on Monday.

The government of Guatemala on Sunday confirmed that the 26-year-old deportee tested positive for the coronavirus and has been hospitalized, while the other 41 people on the plane — including 10 minors — have been placed in isolation.

“The (airplane) probably picked up more deportees because ICE flights typically go from one U.S. city to another to drop off and collect passengers, and then the flight went to Guatemala directly from El Paso,” Anti-Deportation Squad Co-Founder Debbie Nathan told Council.

The group since November has been urging El Paso officials to stop allowing ICE deportation flights to land or take off from the municipally-owned airport.

Debbie Nathan (right) holds a sign during a protest earlier against deportation flights at El Paso International Airport. (Border Report file photo)

“How many airport workers were exposed to the infected passenger? How many local cleaners, food providers, not to mention flight attendants and medical workers? ICE says it does health checks on passengers, but clearly those health checks aren’t catching COVID-19,” Nathan said.

City Council District 2 Rep. Alexsandra Annello picked up on the group’s concern and asked the city manager’s office for more information on the issue.

El Paso International Airport Chief Operations and Transportation Officer Monica Lombraña said the facility can’t stop federal agencies from landing because it receives federal funds.

“In reference to their protocols, we have no say in that, but it’s my understanding that if they’re flying through and picking up additional individuals in El Paso, those on the plane are not disembarking,” she said.

Still, Annello asked if the city can write a letter to the federal government expressing concern about the issue. “I know those people are remaining on the plane, but if people are coming in handling them and then going back to the airport,” she said.

Border Report reached out to ICE regarding the COVID-19 incident in El Paso and its health screening practices.

The agency says that a medical provider conducts visual screenings on new apprehensions who are delivered to the aircraft. Those detainees who are not new apprehensions are brought to the aircraft already with medical clearance. “Any ICE detainee who fails to pass screening by a flight medical provider and/or is suspected of having a health-risk condition potentially contagious to other detainees, staff and/or third parties, will be denied boarding and referred to an ICE approved facility for screening,” the agency stated.

Also, as per ICE air charter removals, the agency provides a temperature screening prior to boarding. Any detainee with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will be immediately referred to a medical provider for further evaluation and observation, the ICE policy states.

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