Trump Blocks Migrants, Nonessential Travel At US Borders

By Suzanne Monyak
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Law360 (March 20, 2020, 2:31 PM EDT) -- Migrants who enter the U.S. without proper travel documentation will be swiftly sent back, administration officials said Friday, as the U.S. government tightens its borders to crack down on the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Beginning Saturday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will execute an order suspending the entry of anyone without legal travel documents, which would appear to include asylum-seekers, at U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico under a law that allows the government to block foreigners who are deemed a public health risk.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said at a Friday news conference that foreigners who cross the border in between ports of entry, or who otherwise lack permission to enter the U.S., will be returned to Mexico, Canada or other countries "without delay," citing the risk of an outbreak at immigration detention facilities. Migrants will be taken into custody and quickly sent back to a port of entry or an airfield to be returned to "limit the amount of contact that we have with these individuals," he said.

"The CDC director has determined that the introduction and spread of the coronavirus at the department's Border Patrol stations and detention facilities presents a serious danger to migrants, our front-line agents and officers, and the American people," Wolf said, adding that it is "all but impossible" to evaluate the public health risk of foreigners who arrive at the border without personal and medical documentation.

These migrants could also strain health resources in U.S. border communities, he said.

President Donald Trump said the border restrictions will protect the health of residents in the U.S., Mexico and Canada, warning of the "great public health consequences of mass, uncontrolled cross-border movement" and potential burden on the U.S. health care system, which is struggling to manage the growing numbers of cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

"In normal times, these massive flows place a vast 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 at the news conference. "Left unchecked, this would cripple our immigration system, overwhelm our health care system, and severely damage our national security."

Alex Azar, secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, added that the social distancing measures recommended by the CDC are not possible in crowded detention facilities.

More than 10,400 people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. The World Health Organization has reported at least 93 cases in Mexico and 569 cases in Canada.

Trump had confirmed his plans on Wednesday to draw on the law, the Public Health Service Act, to prevent migrants from entering the U.S. The statute allows the president to suspend the entry of people and imports into the U.S. when it is "required in the interest of the public health."

The suspension won't apply to American citizens or permanent residents seeking to return to the U.S. from a neighboring country, or to those with valid travel documents, according to the CDC order posted Friday. 

The border restrictions come as the U.S. reached agreements with both Canada and Mexico to close the borders to all nonessential travel. Countries across the globe have tightened their borders in an effort to contain the virus, which the World Health Organization has labeled a pandemic.

The border closures for nonessential travel, which also take effect Saturday, will not affect trade or commerce. Wolf said Friday that people crossing the border to attend educational institutions as well as medical personnel will be permitted to cross.

Agricultural workers who must enter the U.S. at the borders with Mexico and Canada will also be considered essential, according to notices posted by DHS on Friday.

The moves are some of several strict measures the U.S. has implemented in an attempt to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The U.S. has also blocked foreigners who have spent time recently in the United Kingdom, Ireland, China, Iran and the 26 European countries that comprise the Schengen free travel zone from entering the U.S., with exceptions for U.S. green card holders.

Americans and green card holders returning to the U.S. from those areas are now filtered through 13 airports, where they are given medical screenings and quarantined if necessary.

The restrictions are also among several implemented by the Trump administration to cut back on asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border, including by stripping asylum eligibility from those who passed through another country on the way to the U.S., pushing asylum applicants back to Mexico to await their U.S. immigration court dates, and sending some asylum-seekers to Guatemala instead under a bilateral accord.

The Trump administration had also attempted to block migrants who entered the U.S. outside of designated entry ports, but that immigration rule has been blocked by the federal courts while a lawsuit challenging the restrictions continues.

--Editing by Orlando Lorenzo.

Update: This story has been updated with information from the final rule. 

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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