Government watchdog to investigate multiple Homeland Security agencies for coronavirus response

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The government watchdog is examining management of the Covid-19 response at Customs and Border Protection and Immigration and Customs Enforcement facilities, related to detainees in their custody and to the staff, according to the inspector general.
This coronavirus-related investigation — as well as one into the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a component of DHS — are listed as “new” on the inspector general’s list of ongoing investigations.
In April, a group of 26 senators called for the inspector general to immediately review concerns over conditions in ICE detention facilities, asking for site visits to determine whether the facilities were sufficiently addressing the threat of Covid-19 to migrants and staff.

“Not only are detainees at higher risk because they are in such close proximity to others, people in detention and incarceration are more likely to have other preexisting health conditions, which places them at even higher risk for mortality from the virus,” the senators wrote in a letter to the inspector general.

DHS and CBP did not immediately respond to CNN’s request for comment.

At the time of the letter, 360 detainees, 35 ICE employees at detention facilities and 89 ICE employees not assigned to detention facilities, tested positive for Covid-19, according to the senators, who wrote that some contract employees also died of the virus.

There were reports across the country of detention facility staff working without masks or gloves and instances where ICE failed to provide detainees with soap to wash their hands, according to the letter.

Additionally, in a briefing with congressional staff, ICE claimed that it has set an occupancy threshold of 70%, “but also admitted that this threshold was likely insufficient to meet CDC-recommended social distancing guidelines,” the letter said.

Conditions in ICE detention facilities have been a consistent concern for advocates and attorneys since the pandemic took hold in the US.

As of this month, more than 1,000 immigrants in ICE custody have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the agency’s latest statistics, and the number of cases in custody has gradually climbed in recent weeks. ICE has said that it’s working to release detainees it deems are vulnerable to the virus.

Acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Ken Cuccinelli said last month that ICE reviewed its cases to identify people who would be eligible for release, including detainees who are 60 years old and older, those who are pregnant and all people who have “medical fragility.”

Along the border, customs officials and the US Border Patrol have turned away asylum seekers and denied entry to migrants who illegally cross the border, citing a risk of coronavirus spread in its detention facilities.

On Monday, Inspector General Joseph Cuffari responded to the senators’ letter, saying his office was reviewing both agencies, which are responsible for migrant detention. A final report is expected this summer, according to Cuffari.

According to an ICE spokesperson, the agency “cooperates fully with these investigations and appreciates the efforts of the DHS Office of Inspector General, whose reviews serve to help ICE improve our processes and ensure that our civil detention operations provide a safe and secure environment for both detainees and staff.”

FEMA is also being investigated by the inspector general. The watchdog is reviewing the agency’s role in coordinating with federal agencies before and during the coronavirus outbreak.
When FEMA took over the federal government coronavirus response in March, the agency struggled to take the lead — frustrating employees within the agency over being brought into the coronavirus response too late, coupled with fear that FEMA would ultimately take the blame for the bungled response.

Last month, lawmakers demanded that the Trump administration outline disaster preparation and recovery plans for potential disasters that may occur while the agency is also managing the coronavirus response.

In a letter to Administrator Peter Gaynor, a group of lawmakers wrote, “The COVID-19 response has overwhelmed FEMA’s already thin resources, raising concerns about the Agency’s ability to handle both a nationwide public health crisis and the upcoming seasonal hazards that await.”

A spokesperson for FEMA declined to comment on the investigation since its not complete, but told CNN that “coordination with our governmental partners is key to any response.”

CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this story.

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