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Nearly 300 Americans stranded in Central America due to the spread of the coronavirus have returned to the U.S. this week aboard flights used by U.S. immigration authorities to deport people back to their home countries.
Flights returned with the citizens aboard to cities in Arizona, Texas and Louisiana during the past week.
The Americans have been brought back to the U.S. on the return legs of three separate removal flights to Central America, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said. Those return flights usually are empty except for pilots and staff.
Since Sunday, 273 Americans have flown back to the U.S. on removal flights, said Mary Houtmann, an ICE spokesperson.
The total includes 128 Americans flown back from Honduras to Alexandria, Louisiana on Sunday, 81 Americans flown back from El Salvador to San Antonio, Texas on Tuesday and 64 Americans flown back from El Salvador to Mesa, Arizona on Wednesday.
More Americans were expected to be flown back to the U.S. from Central America on Friday, Houtmann said.
ICE has worked with the U.S. State Department to locate Americans stranded in Central America, she said.
There have been numerous media reports in recent days of Americans in Latin America expressing frustration with the U.S. State Department over not being able to return home due to the coronavirus.
“The embassy has completely abandoned us,” Susie Walden, an American stranded in Lima, Peru, told BuzzFeed News. “The government is unlikely to bring people home.”
On March 18, nine Democratic U.S. Senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing concern over Americans stuck abroad due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We are particularly concerned about an increasing number of reports that Americans and their family members have been unable to leave areas affected by COVID-19 and return home,” the letter states. “In particular, Americans in Honduras, Morocco, Peru and Tunisia, among other countries, have reported to our offices that they are encountering difficulties in obtaining support from U.S. Embassies and Consulates, including to arrange commercial flights home.
“In some cases, they are reporting that they are unable to establish contact with, or even receive basic information from, U.S. Embassy personnel,” the letter said.
The Trump administration has advised Americans to avoid all international travel due to the global coronavirus pandemic and told Americans living abroad to come home immediately or be prepared to remain abroad indefinitely.
The administration also has warned that immigrants arriving at the border without documents will be quickly sent back to their countries, including those seeking asylum in the U.S.
Maureen Meyer, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, said flying American’s back on the empty return legs of ICE removal flights seemed like a good use of resources.
But, she added, the U.S. should suspend deportation flights to Central American countries, where poor economic conditions already make it difficult for governments to absorbed deported migrants and now the spread of the coronavirus is making it even harder.
“For countries in the region, you have the added challenge beyond capacity that the countries have shown to receive repatriated countrymen, the added difficulty they have enacted measures that, depending on the country, limit more people’s ability to move around,” she said.
Those measures include curfews, travel restrictions, limited access to public transportation, she said.
“That certainly impacts people’s ability to receive someone or for that person who gets sent back to return to their home community,” she said.
The U.S. had been flying asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras to Guatemala under an agreement reached in 2019 with the Guatemala government requiring migrants to apply for asylum in countries they pass through, as part of an effort to stem a wave of asylum seekers that had been arriving at the southern border.
Guatemala has stopped accepting asylum seekers from El Salvador and Honduras since the coronavirus outbreak, and those types of deportation flights have stopped, Meyer said.
On Wednesday, several advocacy groups in Guatemala demanded that the government there reject deportation flights from the U.S. amid the coronavirus outbreak, saying it put migrants at increased risk, especially adolescents and children, as well as the rest of the population.
“Deportation means returning people to the situation from which they fled and those conditions are now even worse so the risks is greater,” the groups wrote in a statement. “In many communities, people don’t have running water to take preventive measures to avoid infections (handwashing, laundry, bathing when they return home). In the case of minors, it must also be considered that it’s more difficult for parents to be able to reunite with their daughters and sons in Guatemala City (the capital) due to the lack of public transportation and the curfew.”
ICE already has suspended removal operations to Italy, China, and South Korea due to COVID-19.
Houtmann said when world events or country conditions impact a country’s willingness to accept nationals, ICE works both directly with foreign governments and through the Department of State to address the situation.
“ICE’s expectation is that each country will continue to meet its international obligation to accept its own nationals,” she said.
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