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Migrant from India is first case of COVID-19 reported in CBP custody

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said Monday that a 31-year-old man from India is the first person to test positive for COVID-19 in the agency's custody after he crossed into the U.S. near Calexico, California last week.  

The man, who was otherwise not identified, was apprehended on Thursday, April 23, along with three Mexican nationals, said Mark Morgan, the agency's acting commissioner. 

Agents transported the man to a Border Patrol facility, and he was evaluated by medical personnel and placed in quarantine because he was displaying "flu-like symptoms," the agency said. He was tested for COVID-19, the novel coronavirus that has sickened nearly 3.2 million people worldwide, including about 1 million people in the United States. 

While more than 7,200 people have been identified with COVID-19 in Arizona, Mexico has reported few cases with about 16,752 confirmed in total, including just 182 reported cases in the Mexican border state of Sonora. 

CBP said that they were tracing the people the Indian migrant was in contact with, and were closely monitoring his symptoms until he was transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement where where he will "continue to be treated based on medical personnel recommendations."

CBP said that they notified their partners in the government of Mexico of the incident.

Morgan used the man's diagnosis to buttress the agency's argument that it should continue quickly expelling people to Mexico under a program that avoids U.S. immigration and asylum law. 

CBP officials said earlier this month that "by reason of existence of COVID-19 in Mexico and Canada, there is a serious danger of the further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States," and that "prohibition on the introduction of persons or property, in whole or in part, from Mexico and Canada is required in the interest of public health."

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People who have either been covered by previous travel restrictions or who "unlawfully entered the country to bypass health screening measures," will be immediately expelled, CBP said. And, the agency also argued that this was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in CBP holding facilities. 

"In the event a person cannot be returned to the country of last transit, CBP works with interagency partners to secure expulsion to the person’s country of origin and hold the person for the shortest time possible," the agency said. 

At least 6,300 people have been quickly returned to Mexico since March 21, including people from the three Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras who have made up the lion's share of asylum seekers over the last few years. However, the program has not applied to people from other countries, including India. 

"The potential for the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in CBP stations and processing centers presents a danger to migrants, our frontline agents and officers, and the American people. Our agents and officers continue to protect our country from this invisible enemy, risking their own lives for the health of our nation," Morgan said. 

About 305 people in CBP have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, including at least six people in Arizona. 

"This is precisely the reason the CDC has given CBP the authority to rapidly return individuals that could potentially be infected with COVID-19. Can you imagine if we were navigating this pandemic during this time last year, when we had more than 20,000 migrants in our custody? It would have overwhelmed our processing centers and stations, and crippled the healthcare system along the border," Morgan said.  

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel

A BORSTAR agent near the U.S.-Mexico near Yuma, Arizona.