SOUTHMOST, Texas—The Biden administration appears to have abandoned its effort to ensure all migrants apprehended by immigration authorities are inoculated against COVID-19, just a month after the White House said vaccines would be mandatory.
According to several individuals familiar with the matter, some of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly, Border Patrol officials in the Rio Grande Valley are exempting migrants from such countries as Guatemala, Haiti, and Mexico from vaccine mandates. And migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela must only receive one dose of the vaccine before they are released into the U.S. interior.
DHS in March issued a directive that some migrants in seven U.S. regions, including the Rio Grande Valley, must receive COVID-19 vaccinations or be placed into expedited deportation proceedings, the New York Times reported. That policy appears to have been scrapped—or at least modified—in favor of a voluntary vaccination program of one shot.
"It depends on the shift, to be honest," said one individual familiar with the matter. "You talk to guys who work around midnight, and they're not vaccinating anyone. It's really more of an optional policy."
A spokesman for Customs and Border Protection declined to comment.
The initial vaccination plan was widely seen as President Joe Biden's response to critics who allege his administration acted hypocritically when it implemented employer-based vaccine mandates without similar conditions for migrants who wish to enter the country. Scrapping that vaccination plan comes as DHS officials prepare for a surge in migrants following Biden's repeal of Title 42—a federal law that allows for the accelerated removal of migrants during a public health crisis—and as his Department of Justice fights in court to maintain a transportation mask mandate.
Outside the Rio Grande Valley, one Border Patrol Officer stationed in Arizona said he had never heard of any mandatory vaccination policy.
"We're getting steamrolled out here by the thousands," the officer said. "No, we are not vaccinating people."
At the Catholic Charities Humanitarian Respite Center in McAllen, Texas, hundreds of migrants from around the world pass through each day to receive health care, food, and other forms of assistance before they make their way farther into the U.S. interior. According to Sister Norma Pimentel, who runs the shelter, she works every day to persuade migrants to get the vaccine.
"The county set up a vaccination clinic right here," she told the Washington Free Beacon. "We push migrants to take it and say, ‘Look, you can't go anywhere without one.' But, you know, it's up to them really."
The Biden administration's public messaging on the issue has changed as well. Last month, the White House announced a policy expanding vaccinations of migrants of the southern border. Nowhere in that announcement, however, did the Biden administration say such vaccinations were mandatory.
"DHS has also been providing the COVID-19 vaccines to noncitizens in ICE custody since summer 2021," the announcement reads. "Beginning March 28, 2022, DHS expanded those efforts to cover migrants in CBP custody, so as to further safeguard public health and ensure the safety of border communities, the workforce, and migrants."
CBP has also not implemented COVID-19 testing policy for migrants, even though a September 2021 DHS inspector general report blasted the Biden administration for putting "its workforce, support staff, communities, and migrants at greater risk of contracting the virus." That lack of policy means the burden falls on charities, such as Pimentel's, to provide COVID-19 tests.
While left-wing activist groups such as Oxfam America have said people in Latin America "have access to vaccines," many Latin American countries have extremely low vaccination rates.
Guatemala, for example, has just over 36 percent of its population fully vaccinated, according to the vaccination tracking organization Our World in Data. The same organization found that just 1.1 percent of Haiti's population is fully vaccinated.