As the Delta variant of the coronavirus continues to spread across the country, little attention has been paid to the public health issues at the U.S. southern border, where the spread of the disease among illegal migrants is a real concern and it could be moving to other states.

Fixing the surge of migrants attempting to cross the southern border has been one of the most significant challenges facing recent administrations. The Trump administration was blasted for installing strict policies that stemmed migrant flows at various times over the past four years. The Biden administration has reversed many of those policies leading to a surge of people attempting to cross into the U.S. from Central American countries and others countries around the world. 

As a result, border apprehensions surpassed 1 million this fiscal year, a level not seen since 2006. Each month that President Biden has been in office, apprehensions have risen, but not enough attention has been paid to the physical health of migrants entering our nation. 

We cannot say that Illegal immigrants are driving the spread of COVID-19, but some officials are beginning to think they are contributing to it.

Infections spreading among illegal migrants under U.S. care

As the New York Times reported at the start of July, coronavirus cases are surging at the migrant detention centers along the southern border. Last week, Fox News reported that 135 detainees in the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) Sector tested positive for COVID-19 in the first two weeks of July alone, an increase of 900% compared to the previous 14 months.

Yet, these conditions have been downplayed (perhaps intentionally). A new set of whistleblower claims about the conditions at Fort Bliss, a child detention center in Texas, suggest that the administration wants us to believe that there’s nothing really bad going on despite evidence to the contrary:

​​Covid was widespread among children and eventually spread to many employees. Hundreds of children contracted Covid-19 in overcrowded conditions. Adequate masks were not consistently provided to children, nor was their use consistently enforced,” the whistleblowers, Arthur Pearlstein and Lauren Reinhold, said in a federal whistleblower complaint filed Wednesday.

But at the end of their service, they said, federal detailees were regularly given written instructions from HHS public affairs that told them, “when asked, to make everything sound positive about the Fort Bliss experience and to play down anything negative.”

How awful. Sickness aside, any parent should be saddened by the reported ill-treatment of children under the care of the Health and Human Services. Overcrowded facilities house little ones who face lice outbreaks, a lack of clean underwear, and mistreatment at the hands of those who are supposed to care for them. 

This is the problem that the Biden administration created in choosing to accept unaccompanied children brought to the southern border rather than turning them away. 

Title 42 may stay a little longer

In one tentative sign of good news, the Biden administration has indicated it may not end Title 42, a public health order related to the pandemic, to the chagrin of illegal immigrant advocates. Title 42 was installed by the Trump administration and empowered border authorities to immediately turn away migrants to the northern and southern border on public health grounds instead of detaining and processing them. This was a common-sense approach to stop the spread of the coronavirus from untested and potentially sick migrants as we deal with the national public health crisis within our borders. 

The order faces a legal challenge from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is reportedly negotiating with the White House on whether or how to move forward, and vocal opposition from leftist groups that want illegal migrants to come freely into our country. 

The Biden administration hastily reversed other Trump-era policies but kept this one in place, knowing that in lifting the order, they would unleash a flood of potentially sick migrants. However, the administration planned a phased lifting of Title 42 sometime this month (July 2021) in response to opponents of the regulation.

Although the White House has backed down on plans, President Biden could change his mind tomorrow and end Title 42. If he does so, it would likely be calamitous as all of those migrants who have been turned away would now be allowed in and people around the world would be incentivized to come to the southern border. If Border Patrol agents are overwhelmed now, they would overrun.

Infected migrants spreading out across the country

Lawmakers are increasingly raising concerns about unvaccinated undocumented migrants being relocated to detention centers in their states, potentially carrying the virus with them. Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds said recently “As they’re trying to impact additional restrictions on Americans, we’ve got people coming across the border that haven’t been vaccinated, and so that’s also something we need to continue to look at.”

Public health experts say it’s not surprising that migrants could be contributing to the spread of the virus in different states. As the New York Post reports, they are not tested for coronavirus until after they arrive at a facility and then placed in isolation. There’s ample opportunity for them to be exposed or to infect someone else on the bus ride to the facility. 

When they are relocated to areas with low vaccination rates, it spells a recipe for trouble. Sharon Dolovich, director of the Covid Behind Bars Data Project at UCLA explained: 

“You have people coming in and out of the facility, into communities where incomplete vaccination allows these variants to flourish, and then you bring them inside the facilities, and that variant will spread.

“What you’re describing is the combination of insufficient vaccination plus the evolution of the virus, and that is really scary.”

Where is the Biden administration on this issue?

Vice President Kamala Harris recently took a trip to the southern border for what turned out to be little more than a photo-op. She visited an area that was not a hot spot for border crossings and she hardly engaged local officials, federal border agents, and local communities on the issues bubbling up there including health concerns of migrants and the impact they could have on spreading coronavirus. This is not a political issue. It’s a matter of public health and one that the White House cannot ignore.