U.S. has vaccinated 20,000 migrants in border custody as part of massive operation

McAllen, Texas — The U.S. government has vaccinated more than 20,000 migrants and asylum-seekers in U.S. border custody since launching a massive COVID-19 vaccination campaign in late March, the top doctor at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) told CBS News.

During an interview this week, Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, the chief medical officer at DHS, said as many as 1,000 migrants are being vaccinated every day at 24 processing facilities across the U.S.-Mexico border as part of one of the largest medical initiatives the government has set up for undocumented individuals in U.S. custody.

“It is something that I believe is historic, because we are building a health system all along the southwest border, an area that has been historically neglected for years, if not decades,” Gandhi told CBS News on Tuesday during a tour of the migrant holding center in McAllen, Texas, one of the sites offering vaccines.

Migrants who are not expelled under a pandemic-era rule known as Title 42 are being offered COVID-19 vaccines while in the custody of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which temporarily holds them, usually for no longer than 72 hours, before transferring them to another agency, releasing them or deporting them.

Those who cannot demonstrate proof of prior vaccination are counseled to receive a vaccine shot while in CBP custody, Gandhi said, noting the “overwhelming majority” of migrants opt to get vaccinated. The vaccine refusal rate among migrants in border custody, he added, stands in “the low teens.”

The counseling, Gandhi said, is conducted in the migrant’s native language and includes information about the benefits of the vaccine. Migrants who enter U.S. border custody already vaccinated are offered booster shots, Gandhi added.

Migrants prepare to receive their COVID-19 shots at a border facility in McAllen, Texas, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Nicole Sganga / CBS News

Earlier this year, DHS officials said migrants who refused vaccination could be transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers or released with “more stringent conditions of parole,” such as ankle monitors. But Gandhi said migrants should not view the vaccination effort and the counseling around it as a “punitive measure.”

“I don’t think migrants should be scared,” Gandhi said when asked about those who refuse to get vaccinated. “I think migrants should understand that in the U.S., we set certain standards for the American people. My kids had to get a vaccine before they went to their school.”

DHS officials have considered offering COVID-19 vaccines to migrants in U.S. border detention since at least the summer of 2021, when the department proposed vaccinating adult members of migrant families. But that internal plan, reported by CBS News last November, was blocked by top White House officials.

Before the large-scale CBP vaccination campaign began in late March, vaccinations of migrants in U.S. custody had been limited to Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) shelters for unaccompanied children and long-term ICE detention centers.

While the border vaccination program started with single migrant adults, it has since expanded to families traveling with minor children, who Gandhi said are also being vaccinated if they are eligible for the vaccine.

Gandhi said the border vaccinations are not just designed to protect the health of migrants, noting the effort also protects U.S. border personnel and American communities.

“If we’re able to ensure that people get their first dose here, and they have some modicum of protection, we’re able to ensure that hospital beds don’t get used in towns that may need that extra bed,” Gandhi added.

Gandhi said he’s hopeful that DHS will also be able to offer flu shots to migrants in border processing facilities later this year, a move public health experts and advocates have been demanding for years.

At the McAllen migrant holding site, known formally as the Central Processing Center, a group of adult migrants lined up patiently to receive a dose of the vaccine, which is administered by nurses contracted by the federal government. The migrants carried CDC vaccination cards for the nurses to fill out.

Migrants prepare to receive their COVID-19 shots at a border facility in McAllen, Texas, on Tuesday, May 17, 2022.

Nicole Sganga / CBS News

After being vaccinated, the migrants were instructed to sit outside cinder-block cells that can each hold dozens of adults. Gandhi said all migrants who receive a shot are monitored for 30 minutes to make sure they don’t get any symptoms that may require medical attention.

Once the monitoring period is completed, Gandhi said Border Patrol officials decide whether the migrants will be released with a notice to appear in immigration court and tracking devices, placed in a fast-track deportation process known as expedited removal or sent to long-term ICE detention facilities.

The Central Processing Center was reopened earlier this spring after undergoing renovations for over a year, including the removal of holding areas divided by chain-link fencing that were denounced as “cages” during the Trump administration. 

The chain-link holding areas were replaced by cinder-block cells with large windows that resemble traditional Border Patrol stations. The cells, which include televisions, Mylar blankets, metal benches, water fountains and toilets, are cleaned and sanitized three times per day, Border Patrol officials said.

The migrant adults held at the McAllen processing center, most of whom were wearing face masks on Tuesday, are divided by gender, with men and women held in different cells.

The effort to vaccinate migrants in border facilities is the latest vaccination campaign for newly arrived immigrants under the Biden administration. Last year, Gandhi oversaw an effort to vaccinate tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees against the coronavirus, measles, mumps, rubella and chickenpox.

Under a private sponsorship program created by the Biden administration, Ukrainian refugees will also need proof of prior vaccination against COVID-19 and other diseases to enter the U.S., Gandhi said.

DHS officials have previously cited the border vaccination campaign as one of the ways they are preparing for the end of Title 42, the policy first implemented by the Trump administration that allows U.S. officials to expel migrants without processing their asylum claims.

Title 42, which the government had argued was needed to prevent migrants from spreading the coronavirus inside border facilities, is set to end next week, but a federal judge in Louisiana could force the Biden administration to continue it.

Gandhi on Tuesday said the migrant vaccination operation “has nothing to do with Title 42.”

“It happens to coincide with where Title 42 is right now. But the genesis for this program and the planning for this has been going on for a while,” he said.

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