A Guatemalan boy looks over his mother's shoulder while waiting in line for food at the Casa del Refugiado, or The House of Refugee, a new centre opened by the Annunciation House to help the large flow of migrants being released by the United States Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement in El Paso, Texas on April 24, 2019. (Getty/Paul Ratje)

Mumps outbreak in the camps: What's going on in Trump's detention centers?

A disease nearly eradicated by vaccines is spreading in the detention camps. But remember: The cruelty is the point


Sophia Tesfaye
September 4, 2019 11:00AM (UTC)

In the lead-up to both Donald Trump’s election and his first midterm elections, the Republican Party and right-wing media outlets like Fox News aggressively pushed the xenophobic myth that migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border were bringing a new outbreak of long eradicated communicable diseases like smallpox. That was baseless fear-mongering meant to play up the manufactured “crisis” in an effort to scare up votes.

Since the elections, Trump has continued to hype the manufactured crisis in order to build new detention camps, many of them for private profit. The Trump administration has recently moved to hold migrant families and children indefinitely in cages, under inhumane and unsanitary conditions. Now the federal government is willfully refusing to inoculate these migrants — who include many mothers and small children — from deadly diseases while keeping them in cramped conditions. 

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Vaccines have drastically reduced the number of mumps cases in the United States. There have only been about 150 diagnosed cases of mumps outbreak throughout the entire country since 2015. Yet according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), there have been 921 new cases of mumps in less than a year, in or around immigration facilities. Since October of 2018, 890 immigrants and 31 detention facility employees have come down with mumps at 57 Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facilities in 19 states, the majority of them operated by private companies.

A highly contagious viral infection that most commonly affects a person’s salivary glands, mumps can now be prevented with a vaccine. Although it is not usually a serious illness in children, it can cause complications in adults, including temporary or permanent sterility. Pregnant women with mumps are at high risk of losing the fetus in the first trimester. 

While ICE spokesman Bryan Cox said in response to the CDC’s report that medical professionals at detention facilities screen all new detainees within 24 hours of their arrival, a CPB spokesperson said, “In general, due to the short-term nature of CBP holding and the complexities of operating vaccination programs, neither CBP nor its medical contractors administer vaccinations to those in our custody.” 

The CDC said most detainees caught the virus while in the custody of ICE or another U.S. agency. ICE confirmed earlier this summer that of the 5,200 detainees in quarantine across those centers, around 4,200 are for exposure to mumps. As immigration advocates have explained, such large-scale quarantines have served to restrict access to legal services for migrant detainees. 

That in fact seems to be the goal. Trump and his supporters have made clear their goal is to discourage immigration by making an example out of this current wave of migrants. The administration announced last month that it would not provide flu vaccines to families locked away in overcrowded migrant detention facilities, citing “the short-term nature of CBP holding.” According to a letter sent to Congress last month, three migrant children in U.S. detention facilities have died of the flu since December. 

Trump’s camps are already vectors of dangerous disease, and are on the way to becoming death camps by inaction. 

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In addition to children being held for weeks longer than they legally should be in these overpopulated detention centers, infants are being cared for by children as young as eight or nine. As has been widely reported, detainees are denied basic medical care and access to items of personal hygiene, including toothbrushes and soap. According to a recently filed lawsuit, toilet paper is only replenished once per day and teen girls are only given one sanitary pad a day while on their periods, and have been forced to sit in underwear and pants stained in blood. The DHS Office of Inspector General has previously reported “nooses in detainee cells, overly restrictive segregation, inadequate medical care, unreported security incidents, and significant food safety issues.”

This brutality is being exacerbated by design. The Department of Homeland Security has blocked congressional Democratic staffers from entry due to the staff's tendency to "conduct interviews and take photographs." This crackdown on oversight comes after House Democrats caved to administration demands, voting to  give $280 million in additional funding to ICE and more than $1 billion to CPB for detention camps.  

As a recent poll of Republicans makes clear, this is a deliberate strategy. An overwhelming majority of Republican voters, even in states that voted for Hillary Clinton, support Trump’s draconian policies to crack down on illegal immigration, including his infamous (and nonexistent) border wall. Republicans in Congress have similarly cheered this new crackdown on legal immigration, even as non-college-educated white voters, a large portion of Trump’s base, have soured on the issue. 

In addition to electoral advantage, this is brutality by design is for profit. 

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John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff and director of Homeland Security, left the administration to join Caliburn International, a company that runs the facilities that house these migrant children. More than 65 percent of detainees held by DHS are housed in similarly privately run facilities. Kelly was actively involved in creating the family separation policy in the first place that led to overcrowding this private camps. Now he stands to profit from the cruelty he helped design and implement. 


Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's Deputy Politics Editor and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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