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House Democrats ask DHS to consider flu vaccinations for immigration detainees

House Democrats ask DHS to consider flu vaccinations for immigration detainees
© Greg Nash

A group of House Democrats asked acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad WolfChad WolfVoting rights group files suit against Trump, administration officials alleging voter intimidation Business groups, universities file lawsuit over new rules targeting H-1B visas US extends Mexico, Canada border closures MORE on Wednesday if his department will reverse its policy of not providing flu vaccines for short-term immigration detainees.

In a letter led by Rep. Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) task force on immigration, the Democrats requested a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plan to handle the confluence of flu season and the coronavirus pandemic.

"More can and should be done to mitigate the health risks of the COVID-19 pandemic and influenza season," wrote the legislators.

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"Please provide us with a schedule for when a medical response strategy, including vaccination-related requirements, will be developed and in place. This is not only critical for the upcoming influenza season but also for future pandemic-related vaccinations," they added.

The legislators pointed out that influenza was a leading cause of death for children in Customs and Border Protection (CBP) custody in previous flu seasons, and could pose an even graver threat during the pandemic.

"During the 2018-2019 flu season, we saw numerous flu outbreaks in CBP holding facilities and at least three children died of the flu in CBP custody," they wrote.

The debate over short-term detention and vaccinations dates back to the previous flu season, when CBP declined to provide vaccines to migrants detained for less than 72 hours. CBP detention is, in theory, limited to 72 hours, although exceptions abound.

Detention numbers have plummeted as the coronavirus pandemic, border closures with Mexico and programs such as the Migrant Protection Protocols, known as "remain in Mexico," have greatly reduced illegal border crossings.

According to the Border Patrol, its detention centers held an average of 461 detainees per day in August, out of a capacity of 12,500.

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And all land border apprehension encounters — people who were detained by border authorities along the northern and southern borders — were 4,645 in September, compared with 7,655 in March, when pandemic restrictions were put in place.

Still, the legislators asked on Wednesday for a common flu vaccination policy for all immigrant detainees, citing statements by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials who have said that agency offers flu vaccines at intake.

"We ask that you confirm the policies and procedures that ICE follows," wrote the legislators.

ICE detainees regularly spend more time under detention, as they are generally individuals apprehended in the interior of the country facing a longer deportation process.

The legislators also noted that flu vaccines for short-term detainees would help protect DHS officials at detention centers.

"In order to protect DHS employees, their colleagues, families, and the wider community, it would make sense to also offer vaccination to the individuals with whom they come into contact at work," they wrote.

And the legislators asked for a plan in which vaccines would be administered to detainees who cross the 72-hour threshold if they are not provided at detainee intake.

“This administration’s disdain for immigrants has been evident at every turn. Despite their reprehensible rhetoric and despicable policies, DHS has a responsibility to administer care to individuals in their custody," Sánchez said in a statement.

"So we ask: will DHS allow these children and families to be vaccinated, and protect themselves – and CBP personnel – against a preventable disease? Or will Stephen MillerStephen MillerHouse Democrats ask DHS to consider flu vaccinations for immigration detainees Christie released from the hospital after COVID-19 diagnosis Fauci: 'We had a superspreader event in the White House' MORE ask for a show of hands this time, too?” she added, referring to the senior White House adviser.

A representative for DHS did not respond to a request for comment on the lawmakers' request.

Read House Democrats' letter by kballuck1 on Scribd