President Donald Trump announced Friday that the U.S. would close the southern border to “non-essential” travel in an attempt to contain COVID-19 infections and “reduce the incentive for a mass global migration.”
Trump said the current health emergency allows the government to further restrict immigration in a way it hasn’t been able to before. He said a “viral spread at our borders” could infect government authorities and “deplete” health care resources in the United States.
“In normal times, these massive flows put a massive burden on our health system, but during a global pandemic, they threaten to create a perfect storm that would spread the infection to our border agents, migrants and to the public at large,” Trump said in a White House press conference with several cabinet secretaries and his coronavirus task force members.
“Left unchecked this would cripple our immigration system, overwhelm our health care system and severely damage our national security. We’re not going to let that happen.”
According to a Johns Hopkins University tally of global data, Mexico had 164 reported cases of COVID-19 as of Friday, whereas Central American countries combined had 37 cases. Those nations lead the sources of migrants coming to the southern border. In comparison, there were 14,322 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf reiterated the closure of the southern border would not impact trade.
“Let me be clear that neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce. Essential commercial activities will not be impacted. We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders,” he said at the news conference.
Friday’s announcement comes days after the administration announced the U.S. will close its northern border with Canada to non-essential tourist travel.“Non-essential” travel, according to the administration, is for the purpose of tourism or recreation. Wolf said restrictions on both borders would take effect Saturday and be reviewed after 30 days.
Wolf also said anyone coming to either the southern or northern border without proper documents would be turned back to Canada, Mexico or any other country they came from. He justified the move as a way to quell the coronavirus pandemic, particularly along the southern border.
“What we’re trying to do is limit the amount of contact that we have with these individuals. Not putting them in border patrol facilities, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention facilities and the like,” he said. “It’s going to be very rapid. We’re going to obviously take them into custody and then send them back to a port of entry … It will be very quick. It won’t be the six or seven or 10 days we have currently have. It will be much more rapid.”
The New York Times reported earlier this week that the Trump administration was considering turning away all asylum seekers at the southern border under a statutory law that permits the president to prohibit “the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places” if deemed likely to introduce communicable illnesses into the country. It is legal to seek asylum in the United States, however, regardless of whether or not a person’s entry was authorized.
Last spring, monthly border apprehensions exceeded more than 100,000 and included families who turned themselves in to claim asylum. The Trump administration has implemented several policies designed to deter individuals from entering the U.S. illegally, which had the effect of limiting access to legal asylum, advocates say.
One of those, the “Remain in Mexico” program, has sent around 60,000 migrants to Mexico to await U.S. court dates. On Friday, attorneys near the border noted that several migrants seeking to enter at least one port of entry for their scheduled hearings were denied, and asked to return for a new court date by border agents. It’s unclear what clamping down at the border would mean for migrants in this program.
DHS did not immediately respond to CQ Roll Call’s request for clarification.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have all taken preventative measures and suspended some flights to contain the coronavirus.