Jan 19, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: White House eyes vaccine mandate for migrants

A migrant receives a vaccine dose in Mexico before continuing their journey to the U.S. border

A migrant receives a COVID-19 vaccination in Mexico before continuing to the U.S. border. Photo: Luis Barron/Eyepix Group/Future Publishing via Getty Images

The White House is considering requiring migrants aged 5 and older to receive a coronavirus vaccination as a condition for crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to await court hearings, Axios has learned.

Why it matters: The Biden administration has been offering the COVID-19 vaccine to people in immigration detention centers or shelters but hasn't yet offered it to other migrants who've crossed the border — much less required it.

  • The new push comes as all other foreigners legally traveling to the U.S. have to provide proof of vaccination.
  • The same rule applies to Americans returning home from overseas travel.

By the numbers: Under the proposal, the government would have provided vaccines to 86,000 migrants in November who were sent to ICE detention, provided tracking devices or otherwise released into the U.S. using the regulation called Title 8, according to the latest Department of Homeland Security data.

  • Another 87,000 encounters with migrants in November resulted in them being sent back to Mexico or elsewhere under Title 42.
  • That Trump-era restriction allows the U.S. to limit entry based on the public health concerns generated by the pandemic.
  • Those would-be migrants would not have been impacted by the policy being considered.

The big picture: ICE has been dealing with a recent surge in COVID cases. There are 2,000 detained immigrants currently infected, according to agency data.

  • Roughly 1 in 3 immigrants in ICE detention have been refusing the vaccine, according to Axios' and others' reporting.

What they're saying: “Since the beginning of the administration, we have put in place public health protocols that prioritize the health of border communities, agents and migrants," a White House spokesperson told Axios.

  • The administration is "always evaluating" those protocols, including the use of vaccines, "but no final determinations have been made," the official added.
  • Both DHS and the Department of Health and Human Services referred Axios to the White House.

If the proposal is green-lighted, contractors would begin providing vaccines to migrants attempting to cross the border illegally — or through legal ports of entry — before they're allowed into the U.S.

Families would be prioritized.

  • The use of ankle bracelets and traceable cellphones in place of detention has boomed under the Biden administration, especially for families awaiting court hearings. The proposal would provide vaccines for this population.
  • Contractors are lined up and could be deployed within 48 hours once given the go-ahead by the White House and agencies responsible for the funding, a senior DHS official told Axios.
  • A decision is expected as soon as this week.

The details: The proposal originated with DHS and is being considered by President Biden. It also would require migrants to receive a second dose of the vaccine as a condition for parole — the legal mechanism allowing them to live and work in the U.S., even without legal status, ahead of court hearings.

  • The agency is looking into ways to enforce compliance, according to an internal, inter-agency document obtained by Axios.
  • The exact details of a final program remain in flux.

Go deeper: On Wednesday morning, the administration defended its use of Title 42 to turn back migrants who illegally cross the border, without a chance at asylum.

  • DOJ and the White House do not believe expanded vaccination at the border would substantially increase the risk of legal action against Title 42, according to the document.
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