Guatemala's health minister said Tuesday that deportees from the United States were driving up the country's COVID-19 caseload, adding that on one flight some 75% of the deportees tested positive for the virus.
Health Minister Hugo Monroy's comments were dramatically out of line with what the government had previously said about infected deportees. Later, presidential spokesman Carlos Sandoval told reporters that Monroy was referring to a March flight on which "between 50% and 75% (of the passengers) during all their time in isolation and quarantine have come back positive."
Before Tuesday, Guatemala had only reported three positive infections among deportees flown back by the United States.
Joaquín Samayoa, spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry, confirmed a fourth positive case for a migrant who arrived on a flight Monday. At least three of the migrants who arrived Monday were taken directly to a hospital for COVID-19 testing.
President Alejandro Giammattei addressed the nation later, but made no mention of the deportees. It remained unclear why before Tuesday the government had only reported three deportees who tested positive and how many more would have been among the high percentage who tested positive aboard that March flight. Giammattei said Tuesday there were a total of 175 people who had tested positive in Guatemala and five who had died.
"There are really flights where the deportees arrive ... citizens who come with fever, and they get on the planes that way," Monroy said. "We automatically evaluate them here and test them and many of them have come back positive."
He added that the United States had practically become the Wuhan of the region, referring to the Chinese province where the pandemic began.
Guatemala again began receiving deportation flights from the United States Monday 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.
However, the flights resumed Monday with 76 migrants aboard the first and 106 on the second. Guatemala's foreign ministry did not immediately clarify why the U.S. had not complied with its requirements, but the flights came on the same day that the U.S. State Department announced that aid would continue to Guatemala and the other Northern Triangle countries.
One of Monday's flights also included 16 unaccompanied minors, according to the Guatemalan Immigration Institute.
Since January, the U.S. has deported nearly 12,000 Guatemalans, including more than 1,200 children.
Citing the epidemic, the U.S. has started swiftly deporting unaccompanied minors rather than holding them in protective settings as specified by law.
Also on Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement that he had informed Congress that the U.S. government would continue assistance for Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in order to continue to lower illegal immigration and accomplish other policy objectives.
Pompeo said that since illegal immigration from those three countries peaked in May 2019, "encounters" with migrants from those countries had fallen by 76%. The U.S. government has effectively ended any possibility of seeking asylum at the southern border with emergency restrictions applied in the face of the epidemic.
Before the epidemic, the U.S. had also started sending Hondurans and Salvadorans to Guatemala and similarly had agreements in place to begin doing so in Honduras and El Salvador.
Deportations from the U.S. have continued despite the outbreak. The United States holds about 34,000 people in immigration detention, down from about 37,000 last month.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement says 77 detainees have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Acting Deputy Homeland Security Director Ken Cuccinelli told reporters Tuesday that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has released nearly 700 people from immigration detention around the country because their age or health conditions made them vulnerable to the virus. He also said authorities were taking steps to ensure that people who may have been exposed in custody are kept separate from other detainees.
"ICE is certainly committed to ensuring that comprehensive medical care is provided for all of their detainees from the moment they arrive in ICE custody through the entirety of their state," Cuccinelli said.
The administration on Friday issued a memo authorizing the use of visa sanctions to punish any nation that "denies or unreasonably delays" taking its citizens as they are deported from the U.S. amid tightened border enforcement imposed last month as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Officials have declined to identify any countries that may have prompted the announcement.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.