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A U.S. Customs and Border Protection database allows personnel to run background checks on people apprehended at the border and access records collected by U.S. and foreign authorities.
CBP might not have full access to a person’s medical records, but the agency says it screens people for COVID-19 and other health issues.
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., arguing against President Joe Biden’s immigration agenda, claimed that there’s no screening process for people coming into the United States.
While millions of Americans are out of work, Cotton said in a Feb. 1 Fox News interview, Biden wants to give "amnesty to 15 million" people living illegally in the country, invite more guest workers, and give people "with bogus claims of asylum" an opportunity to come into the country to work.
"And we are in a pandemic, good job," Fox & Friends co-host Brian Kilmeade responded sarcastically.
Cotton continued: "A lot of these migrants that are coming, we have no way to screen their backgrounds for either health or for security." He praised former President Donald Trump’s "Remain in Mexico" policy to keep asylum seekers in Mexico, "as opposed to being released into our country" pending a hearing.
During his presidential campaign, Biden promised a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people illegally in the country, and spoke out against the Remain in Mexico program, saying he would allow people seeking asylum to stay in the U.S. while their cases were under review. Biden’s administration stopped enrolling people in the program, but has not revoked it.
We asked Cotton’s press office for more information about his claim that there’s "no way to screen" migrants.
"Relying on the honor system for security and health background checks is not a sufficient screen," said Caroline Tabler, a spokesperson for Cotton.
But U.S. officials don’t have to rely on an "honor system." U.S. Customs and Border Protection has tools and processes to screen immigrants who are apprehended at the border for health and security issues, even if the people aren’t fully upfront or don’t have medical records or documentation on hand proving they have a clean background.
CBP told PolitiFact that it does initial inspections for symptoms or risk factors associated with COVID-19, and "pursuant to longstanding infectious disease protocols," refers immigrants who might have an infectious disease to local clinics or hospitals "for appropriate medical evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment."
Procedures for COVID-19 have been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, said Matthew Dyman, a spokesperson for the CBP.
In late April, CBP said that a 31-year-old Indian man was the first person in its custody to test positive for COVID-19.
The oversight office within the Department of Homeland Security surveyed CBP personnel from April 22 to May 1. Ninety percent of the Border Patrol stations and ports of entry offices that responded to the survey said they conducted risk assessments to determine if people in CBP custody were exposed to COVID-19.
Protocols included "screening individuals for COVID-19 symptoms when they are initially processed at a facility, and continued monitoring for potential COVID-19 symptoms for as long as they remain in CBP custody," said the September 2020 inspector general report. The report said, however, that it was rare for facilities to be able to administer COVID-19 tests on site.
As of July 13, 58 migrants across all Border Patrol stations had tested positive for COVID-19, the report said.
CBP in late 2019 issued a directive to improve the medical screening of people in its custody after several children died while in CBP care. The three-phase approach called forCBP personnel to observe people for potential medical issues, conduct health interviews on all people under 18 years old, "at a minimim"; and "subject to availability of resources and operational requirements," perform a medical assessment on children age 12 and younger and people with a known or reported medical concern. Implementation of the directive was contingent upon funding and resources, the CBP acting commissioner said in 2019.
Whether CBP’s health screening procedures are sufficient and effective can be debated, but it’s inaccurate to say there’s "no way to screen" people.
The Texas Tribune and ProPublica reported in August that a different immigration agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was testing unaccompanied children for COVID-19 and deporting those who tested negative. The news organizations said that ICE had agreements with 10 countries requiring that children test negative for COVID-19 before being sent back to their home countries. The Washington Post reported in early December that 1,061 minors in U.S. immigration custody had tested positive for COVID-19 since March.
In March 2020, the Trump administration invoked Title 42, a section of federal law that allows the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to deny entry to immigrants coming from countries with infectious disease outbreaks. So far, Biden’s administration has kept that directive, allowing quick expulsion of people arriving at the border.
CBP has access to international databases through TECS, an information-sharing platform that allows the agency to obtain the criminal history of a person who attempts to enter the United States, said Nicole Hallett, an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School.
A 2016 DHS report said that the purpose of TECS was "to track individuals who have violated or are suspected of violating a law or regulation that is enforced or administered by CBP, to provide a record of any inspections conducted at the border by CBP, to determine admissibility into the United States, and to record information regarding individuals, firms, and organizations to whom DHS/CBP has issued detentions and warnings."
If a person poses a threat to national security, they can’t get asylum, said Lynn Marcus, director of the Community Immigration Law Placement Clinic at the University of Arizona. "There is a process for screening all of this," she said.
Cotton said, "A lot of these migrants that are coming, we have no way to screen their backgrounds for either health or security."
A CBP database allows personnel to run criminal background checks on people apprehended at the border and access records collected by U.S. and foreign authorities. CBP routinely publishes data on immigrants who attempted to enter the country and have a criminal record.
CBP might not always have access to a person’s full medical records, but the agency says it screens people for COVID-19 and other health issues.
It’s fair to question whether existing protocols are sufficient, but it’s inaccurate to say "we have no way to screen" immigrants.
We rate Cotton’s claim False.
Twitter, @SenTomCotton tweet, Feb. 1, 2021
Email interview, Caroline Tabber, Sen. Tom Cotton’s spokesperson, Feb. 1, 2021
Email interview, Matthew Dyman, CBP spokesperson, Feb. 1, 2021
Phone interview, Lynn Marcus, director of the Community Immigration Law Placement Clinic at the University of Arizona, Feb. 2, 2021
Email interview, Nicole Hallett, an associate clinical professor of law and director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, Feb. 2, 2021
Email interview, Denise Gilman, co-director of the Immigration Clinic at the University of Texas Law School, Feb. 3, 2021
Fox News, Tom Homan: Biden's border crisis is already brewing and it will accelerate COVID spread in the US, Dec. 18, 2020
PolitiFact, Fact-checking Joe Biden’s claim on asylum seekers in Mexico, Aug. 12, 2020
DHS.gov, DHS Statement on the Suspension of New Enrollments in the Migrant Protection Protocols Program, Jan. 20, 2021
CBP.gov, Illegal Alien Tests Positive For COVID-19, April 27, 2020; Nationwide Enforcement Encounters: Title 8 Enforcement Actions and Title 42 Expulsions; CBP Enforcement Statistics Fiscal Year 2021; Criminal Alien Statistics Fiscal Year 2021
DHS.gov, TECS System: Platform, Aug. 12, 2016
DHS OIG report, Early Experiences with COVID-19 at CBP Border Patrol Stations and OFO Ports of Entry, Sept. 4, 2020
CBP.gov, Enhanced Medical Support Efforts, Dec. 30, 2019
PolitiFact, Were migrant children who died very sick before taken into U.S. custody, as Trump claimed?, Jan. 3, 2019
Texas Tribune, ICE is making sure migrant kids don't have COVID-19, then expelling them to "prevent the spread" of COVID-19, Aug. 10, 2020
Washington Post, More underage migrants are testing positive for coronavirus, Dec. 7, 2020
PolitiFact, Fact-checking Donald Trump’s claim of ‘best numbers’ at the border, May 20, 2020
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