Amid growing concerns over the coronavirus pandemic, the White House said Friday it will shut down the nation's southern and northern borders to immigrants caught trying to enter the US illegally.
The new policy instructs border agents to immediately send immigrants and asylum-seekers caught trying to enter the US between official border crossings back to Mexico or Canada without detaining or processing them. The policy will take effect Friday at midnight, acting Homeland Security Director Chad Wolf said in a press conference.
The move is a major departure from the way the US would previously treat immigrants caught entering the country without authorization. In the past, border agents would temporarily detain and process immigrants before sending them to ICE detention, back to Mexico to await a US court hearing, to another country to first seek asylum there, or to their home countries. Now the US will refuse to process them at a US facility before sending them back. Instead, the immigrants will be driven to the nearest port of entry and returned to Mexico or Canada without any due process.
Wolf cited recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in announcing the decision, adding that the US is "working collaboratively" with Mexico and Canada.
"The CDC's director has determined the introduction and spread of the coronavirus and the department's border patrol stations and detention facilities presents a serious danger to migrants, our frontline agents and officers, and the American people," Wolf said Friday.
In further guidance issued Friday night, the CBP said that in the event an immigrant cannot be returned to Mexico or Canada, the agency will work with interagency partners to secure return to the immigrant's country of origin to be held "for the shortest time possible."
"For those who remain in CBP custody, CBP will, to the extent possible, keep them separated," the agency added. "Symptomatic aliens will be referred to CDC and placed in isolation."
It's not the first time the Trump administration has sent immigrants to other countries after they step foot in the US. Since January 2019, the Trump administration has been sending immigrants and asylum-seekers back to Mexico to wait for their US immigration cases to be adjudicated. Some 60,000 have been sent back through the Migrant Protection Protocols, but even they were processed by US immigration authorities.
The program has been criticized by immigrant advocates for making immigrants wait in dangerous border cities that don't have the resources to provide shelter and food to people who arrive at the border with little money.
"It's important to note that the department currently apprehends foreign nationals from over 120 different countries around the world, the vast majority of those having coronavirus cases," Wolf said Friday. "Many of these individuals arrived with little or no identity, travel, or medical documentation, making public health risk determinations all but impossible. It's also important to note the outbreak on our southern border would likely increase the strain on health systems in our border communities, taking away important and life-saving resources from American citizens."
The US has 14,321 confirmed COVID-19 cases compared to Mexico's 164, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
On Tuesday, the Guatemalan government suspended accepting flights carrying asylum-seekers trying to enter the US, shutting down one of the Trump administration's key methods of deporting would-be immigrants, in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The policy sends people from Honduras and El Salvador who tried to seek asylum in the US to Guatemala to seek protection there instead. As of Monday, 939 people were sent to Guatemala under the so-called safe third country agreement.
In addition to concerns about sending immigrants to a country that has seen thousands of its people fleeing violence and poverty, advocates have said Guatemala doesn't have a robust asylum system to process the people the US sends there on flights.