WASHINGTON – The U.S. and Mexico were moving to restrict “nonessential travel” across the border just after midnight Friday night, as President Donald Trump cited concerns about disease-bearing migrants at the southern border spreading coronavirus and overwhelming the U.S. health care system.
There is no evidence linking Mexico or the southern border to the outbreak, which started in China, though medical experts and immigrant advocates have expressed concern about risks of contagion in detention facilities.
“Our nation’s top health care officials are extremely concerned about the great public health consequences of mass uncontrolled cross-border movement … even beyond but mostly during this global pandemic,” Trump said at a White House briefing on Friday, announcing that under public health emergency powers, the federal government would exclude migrants for the foreseeable future and also cut off tourism and shopping excursions.
Closures at the northern and southern borders were to start after midnight Friday. Lawful trade will continue, allaying fears of further economic blows from the pandemic, though anxiety along the border was intense.
“Every day, every hour, that travel, traffic is not normal will be a huge economic hit on us, especially for Texas,” IBC Bank executive vice president Gerald Schwebel, a leading authority on Texas-Mexico trade, said in Laredo. “We’re about to find out just how connected we are, and how essential everyone is.”
About 1 million Texas jobs are tied to trade.
Trump’s assertions about migrants bringing disease drew allegations of scapegoating and complaints that he was using the spread of COVID-19 as a pretext to push an anti-immigrant agenda, with echoes of his earlier claims that Mexico purposely sends rapists and murderers into the United States.
“Every week, border agents encounter thousands of unscreened, unvetted and unauthorized entries from dozens of countries, and we’ve had this problem for decades. For decades,” Trump said. “Now it’s a national emergency and … we can actually do something about it.”
Immigrant advocates blasted the president for vilifying immigrants.
“The house is burning down and he wants to talk about walls and borders,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice. “The incompetence is lethal. … He’s so determined to deflect responsibility that he’s trying to make the cornerstone of his response keeping foreigners out, rather than ramping tests up.”
Anxiety at the border
As news of the impending restrictions spread, Jacqueline Hernandez, 18, an American, made a dash across the border to pick up medicine, her favorite breakfast flakes – Choco Krispis – and to see her mother.
“Things are moving so fast that there may be new rules tomorrow,” she said on the Paso del Norte bridge as she walked from El Paso to Ciudad Juárez. “Sure, maybe I can go back and forth, but what about my mother, my family in Mexico?”
She looked around as people said farewell, some in tight embraces. Others, like her, headed across to see relatives or a dentist before midnight.
Carlos Cervantes, 22, is a U.S. citizen who lives in Juárez, studying computer science at the University of Texas at El Paso and working as a software integration engineer at DATAMARK, a business process outsourcing company, also on the U.S. side. Until recently, he crossed almost every day.
He plans to work and study from home, something not everyone can do.
“My life depends on U.S. jobs and education,” Cervantes said.
As worry and uncertainty boiled, Mario Duran, 51, said he feared being caught on the Mexico side. He lives in El Paso with his family and is wary of crossing into Juárez for his job at IG MEX, an assembly plant, or maquiladora, that makes electric motors.
“The Juárez community really needs the El Paso community, and the El Paso community really needs Juárez,” he said.
Tony Garza, a Brownsville native who served as ambassador to Mexico under President George W. Bush, said that closing the border would have a "profound economic impact” but that, fortunately, the current measures were well short of that, and a necessary sacrifice.
“While that will hurt economically, it’s not altogether different from what communities all across the U.S. and, soon, Mexico are having to do in order to bring the coronavirus under control," he said.
Trump blames migrants
Trump argued that even “in normal times, these massive flows” strain the U.S. health care system but that "during a global pandemic … 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.”
The White House did not cite such concerns when similar restrictions with Canada were announced two days earlier.
In speaking of “unchecked” migration as a threat, Trump was pointing to current, pre-pandemic levels.
He emphasized that the northern and southern borders were being treated the same.
“We are … increasingly concerned about are the number of illegal individuals coming into our country,” acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf told reporters at the White House.
“This is not about closing the border," he said. “We want to make sure that cargo continues, trade continues, health care workers continue to be able to traverse that border.”
Texas’ economy relies heavily on trade with Mexico, and business and government leaders have worried about the impact of any border restrictions.
“I wouldn’t want to see the economy hammered further … by shutting down that trade,” Sen. John Cornyn said before the new restrictions were finalized. “I don’t think that’s a major source of spreading the coronavirus, if appropriate precautions are taken. But obviously, because we don’t have complete control of who comes across the southern border, I think there is a higher risk of somebody coming into the country who wittingly or unwittingly has the virus spreading it in the United States."
Immigrant advocates expressed concern about Trump’s rhetoric and his drive to impose harsh immigration policies.
“It’s public safety first, because we’re in a public health emergency,” said Rep Joaquin Castro, a San Antonio Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “But the president and Stephen Miller" — the architect of Trump’s immigration agenda — “should not use this as an excuse to carry out overly draconian immigration policies” and to “punish immigrants and asylum seekers.”
As of Friday afternoon, Mexico had more than 165 reported cases and one death attributed to COVID-19, though international health officials have criticized a lack of testing that may be keeping the tally low. The latest figures for the United States: 15,219 cases and more than 200 deaths.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard spoke by phone on Thursday about “coordinating a plan to restrict non-essential travel across our shared border in response to the COVID-19 pandemic," according to the State Department.
Pompeo, at Trump’s side on Friday, said the restrictions “will last as long as we need to protect the American people from this virus.”
Earlier Thursday, the State Department issued its highest-level travel warning, a “Level 4: Do Not Travel advisory" urging U.S. citizens to “avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19."
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, said Mexico and its health authorities should take more precautions to slow the spread. “We love to be together, but we have to be cautious,” she said.
Arturo Sarukhan, former Mexican ambassador in Washington, said that “it will be painful to see a virus effectively bringing to a halt” – for now – the “constructive synergies that have made our transborder region one of the most economic and socially dynamic and culturally effervescent in the world."
On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who has been working from home for 10 days after his wife tested positive for COVID-19 – announced that the Canadian border would be closed to foreigners other than Americans.
On Wednesday, the U.S. and Canada announced an agreement to close their mutual borders to nonessential traffic. “Trade will not be affected,” Trump tweeted.
People caught crossing the border illegally are currently kept in custody for a week or more – much longer if they are requesting asylum. Under the new rules, they’ll be returned to their country of origin almost immediately.
“It’s going to be very rapid,” said Wolf, the acting homeland security secretary.
At the southern border, Mexicans will be returned through land ports. Other foreign citizens will be put on flights to their country of origin, he said.
At Amnesty International USA, advocacy director Charanya Krishnaswami decried the border restrictions as “cruel, short-sighted and opportunistic."
“It’s hard to imagine travel more essential than the journey an asylum seeker makes to flee persecution,” she said. “Today’s restrictions, which empower the U.S. to push back people who lack proper documentation, may inexcusably prevent asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children — two of the populations at greatest risk of danger — from accessing safety.”
Trump and top aides announced that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, invoking Section 362 of the Public Health Service Act, was restricting entry along the land borders to protect migrants and officers who might interact with them.
“We’re talking about significant numbers of illegal immigrants. From this past October through February, DHS has processed more than 21,000 inadmissible aliens at the northern border and more than 151,000 inadmissible aliens at the southern border,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, who said the president “is taking action to slow the spread of infectious disease via our border.”
“Social distancing” isn’t possible at detention centers, he said, and “migrants in these facilities are drawing on an American health care system that is already fighting the coronavirus pandemic.”
Advocates agree, and have demanded closure of such centers.
Dr. Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser at Physicians for Human Rights and a professor at Georgetown University School of Medicine, noted that “across the country, officials have made the difficult – but necessary – public health decision to close high-density settings like schools, college campuses, government buildings, cultural institutions, sports arenas. The same strategy should apply to immigration detention facilities."