President Joe Biden insists that migrants pose no threat of spreading COVID-19 but treats Customs and Border Protection officials as superspreaders, according to interviews with agents and a review of agency documents.
The agency ordered vaccinated Border Patrol agents to wear masks when fulfilling a number of official duties, even as Biden begins winding down a Trump administration policy that gave the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection broad authority to turn away migrants who may carry disease. The June 15 directive, signed by then-deputy chief Raul Ortiz, mandates that "fully vaccinated U.S. Border Patrol personnel, contractors, and visitors … [wear masks] in 'operation settings … due to increased risk situations involving potential contact with detainees, employees, and the public.'"
Those "operation settings" encompass virtually all duties for agents who patrol the border, according to one official who spoke with the Washington Free Beacon. That is why, the official added, many supervisors have been ignoring the order, which also mandates that agents wear masks during "field training … where physical contact may be expected."
"It's definitely pissing off [CBP officers]," the official said. "That's probably why after [the directive came out] we were told by our supervisors not to worry about it and that they weren't going to enforce it."
On May 13, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks, whether they are indoors or outside. Biden also announced that White House staffers no longer needed to wear masks when in the office.
COVID-19 cases have surged in migrant detention facilities in the last several months as the Biden administration worked to reverse pandemic safety measures adopted by the Trump administration. According to data provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, over 40 percent of all COVID-19 cases, more than 7,500 in total, in those facilities since the pandemic began have been recorded from April to July of this year.
During Vice President Kamala Harris's trip to the border last month, however, multiple photos showed her wearing a mask when speaking outdoors to CBP officials. Those images raised the eyebrows of some CBP officials, who wondered about the optics of presenting a potentially hazardous situation at the border as the rest of the country begins returning to normal.
A spokeswoman for CBP did not dispute the language of the memo but said the agency does make some exceptions for vaccinated officers.
"In accordance with CDC guidance, CBP personnel who have been fully vaccinated are not required to wear a mask or physically distance in most circumstances (i.e., two weeks after receiving the last recommended vaccine dose)," the spokeswoman said when reached for comment by the Free Beacon.
Ortiz, who is now the Border Patrol's chief, replaced Rodney Scott, a vocal advocate of a southern border wall who oversaw many of the Trump administration's controversial immigration policies. Scott's departure marks one of many changes to immigration policy under Biden.
In a June 26 interview with ABC News, Ortiz broke with his predecessor by alleging that Title 42, the provision that allowed the Trump administration to turn away immigrants, actually contributed to the record-high surge in migrants attempting to cross the southern border. Acknowledging the health risks associated with patrolling the southern border—more than 12,000 CBP officers and employees have contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began—Ortiz said his main priority was entering migrants' information into federal systems.
"We got to get better at processing people," Ortiz said. "We got to get faster at processing people. We got to get faster at transferring those individuals over to the other agencies."
Biden's relaxed approach to coronavirus safety protocols for migrants and crackdown on vaccinated border agents come as Latin America emerges as a flashpoint for COVID-19 variants. In recent days, Biden and senior health officials have warned the public about a more lethal variant of COVID-19, known as Delta, circulating within the United States. Scientists also recently raised alarm about the Lambda mutation of COVID-19, which emerged in Peru last August. Roughly 81 percent of new COVID-19 cases in Peru were from the Lambda strain, according to the World Health Organization. Although no cases of the mutation have been detected in the United States so far, the strain has been found in 30 different countries, including almost every one in Latin America.