Jude said his body ached, and he was feverish. The 40-year-old was being held with dozens of other Haitians in a crowded U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility at the Alexandria International Airport in Louisiana. “They give you Tylenol, ibuprofen, that’s it,” he told The Intercept in late May. “After that, they just want to send you right back to your country. If you die, you die.”

Jude, who is being identified by a pseudonym to protect him and his family, said he’d tested positive for the coronavirus at the nearby Pine Prairie ICE Processing Center, where he’d begged staff to send him to the hospital. But instead of receiving medical treatment, Jude said, he was being deported back to Haiti.

With approximately 120 ICU beds, and even fewer ventilators, for a population of 11 million, the island nation was bracing for the worst. Haiti had already closed its borders and shut down airports in March, after its first two cases of infection were reported, and medical experts warned the pandemic could be catastrophic for the impoverished country’s already debilitated health system. But the morning after he spoke with The Intercept, Jude was fitted with shackles on his wrists and ankles and marched out to a chartered plane waiting on the runway. With him were four other Haitian immigrants who told The Intercept that they had also been quarantined at Pine Prairie after testing positive for the virus. The May 26 deportation flight was one of seven to touch down in the Haitian capital since President Donald Trump declared the pandemic a national emergency on March 13.

As countries closed their borders and public health guidance urged restrictions on movement to contain the pandemic, the United States likely chartered more than 350 deportation flights to at least 15 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean between February and late June, according to flight data analyzed by the nonprofit Center for Economic and Policy Research. Some of those flights had people on board who tested positive for the coronavirus after landing, according to government officials in the receiving countries. CEPR’s analysis, based on data from the public flight tracker FlightAware, designated flights as likely deportations if they were operated by airlines known to charter with ICE and matched known deportation routes. The true number of deportation flights is probably even greater, according to CEPR.

  • Between February 3 and June 24, the Center for Economic and Policy Research identified 351 likely ICE deportation flights to Latin America and the Caribbean. CEPR analyzed data from the public flight tracker FlightAware and designated flights as likely deportations if they were operated by airlines known to charter with ICE and matched known deportation routes. Click on individual airports to see the number of departing and arriving flights. Data visualization: Akil Harris/The Intercept. Source: Center for Economic and Policy Research

New cases of the coronavirus are rapidly rising in most of Latin America. Some government officials complain that instead of helping the region fight the pandemic, the U.S. is only fanning the flames of contagion. Interviews with people detained by ICE and government and public health officials in Haiti and Guatemala make clear the repercussions of hard-line immigration enforcement at any cost. Most imminent are the public health concerns, as the U.S. fails to consistently test for Covid-19 infections among those it plans to deport. Beyond that, reporting in receiving countries reveals that returning migrants have become targets for blame, while limited public health systems struggle to cope with the crisis. Finally, there are growing diplomatic consequences, as the U.S. pushes allied nations to allow the deportation flights to land.

In response, leaders like Haitian Foreign Affairs Minister Claude Joseph have repeatedly pleaded with the U.S. government to suspend the flights. “I have many times over the phone tried to convince our American friends,” Joseph told the Miami Herald. U.S. Congress members and medical organizations have also petitioned the Trump administration to issue a moratorium, with groups like Doctors Without Borders warning that a major outbreak will be “catastrophic” for countries with “fragile health systems.” But while the Trump administration has invoked the pandemic to justify new restrictions on immigration, it has continued to forge ahead with deportations, creating a petri dish for the virus in crowded immigration detention facilities and then exporting it overseas.

Flight Risk

From the early days of the pandemic, the U.S. paid little heed to public health guidance when it came to detained immigrants, and detention centers have become hot spots for the illness. ICE updates its numbers irregularly, but as of June 19, it had tested 8,858 detainees; as of June 25, 2,521 were reported positive for the virus. An epidemiological model, funded by the National Institute of General Medical Sciences, estimated from ICE’s existing data that at least 72 percent of the population in detention could potentially become infected. Yet ICE has continued to detain immigrants, then deport them, and has even recently expanded its flights to include Liberia and India, where health officials confirmed that 22 people had tested positive for Covid-19 after landing on May 19.

Central America’s Northern Triangle, however, has received the majority of flights, since many of the migrants arriving at the U.S.’s southern border in recent years have been from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Of 351 likely deportation flights between February 3 and June 24, according to CEPR, 240 went to the Northern Triangle. Guatemala was the top recipient with 100 flights.