The specialized Homeland Security unit charged with preventing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attacks against the United States obligated $9.5 million to test illegal immigrants for COVID-19 in Mexican border crossings. The costly operation, described as “short-term” in a federal audit, lasted less than two months and tested around 22,000 migrants primarily in the Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley Border Patrol sectors in Texas. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) bureau, known as the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) office, evidently stepped in because Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the frontline DHS agency, was crushed with an onslaught of illegal immigrants in the throes of a global pandemic.
The CWMD COVID-19 testing contract was effective March 16, 2021, and ended on May 5, 2021, when DHS began working with non-governmental organizations to take over testing. That seems like a better fit to screen illegal aliens for a virus rather than using the precious resources of a DHS office with a stated mission of preventing attacks against the country using a WMD through timely, responsive support to operational partners. Created by then President Donald Trump in 2018, CWMD leads DHS efforts and coordinates with domestic and international partners to safeguard the U.S. against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) threats. That also includes health security threats, which is apparently why the agency got involved with the border COVID-19 crisis, though only for a short period. Specific details about the CWMD’s involvement and multi-million-dollar allocation to screen illegal immigrants for the virus are scarce and what little is known only surfaced casually in a report focusing on a related matter.
The document, published by the DHS Inspector General, centers on the agency’s need to enhance its COVID0-19 response at the southwest border. The watchdog investigated the matter when the U.S. began experiencing a surge of migrants in conjunction with the pandemic, “adding increased risk to an unprecedented public health emergency.” The IG received a referral from the Office of Special Counsel concerning the lack of COVID-19 testing at one Mexican border crossing and investigators conducted a “limited review” to identify what measures have been implemented by DHS to stop the virus’s spread among illegal immigrants. It turns out CBP does not conduct COVID-19 testing for illegal immigrants in its custody and is not required to do so, according to the DHS IG. “Instead, CBP relies on local public health systems to test symptomatic individuals,” the watchdog writes in its report. That’s because, as a frontline law enforcement agency, CBP does not have the necessary resources to conduct such testing.
Here is how the frontline law enforcement agency handles the unprecedented situation. “For migrants who are transferred or released from CBP custody into the United States, CBP coordinates with Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other Federal, state, and local partners for COVID-19 testing of migrants,” the report says. “Although DHS generally follows guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for COVID-19 preventative measures, DHS’ multi-layered COVID-19 testing framework does not require CBP to conduct COVID-19 testing at CBP facilities.” As a result, DHS is putting its workforce, support staff, communities as well as migrants at great risk of contracting the virus, according to the IG.
The snippet about CWMD’s $9.5 million allocation to conduct the migrant COVID-19 testing for around seven weeks is buried in the 22-page report and could easily get overlooked. It is only mentioned to disclose that, although CBP’s COVID-19 decision matrix only requires it to screen and isolate symptomatic individuals or those with known exposures, CWMD assisted for a limited time, primarily in the two Texas crossings. The CWMD contract’s official statement of work says that agency contractors, working on behalf of CBP, “shall administer, on a voluntary basis, family unit aliens COVID-19 testing within or near USBP stations,” focusing on the Del Rio and Rio Grande Valley sectors. A vague footnote embedded in the report says that “according to CWMD officials, CWMD was reimbursed by CBP through an interagency agreement.” No further details are provided about the peculiar arrangement.