WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration has quickly expelled roughly 10,000 migrants to Mexico and other countries in less than three weeks since imposing its most severe immigration restrictions yet in response to the coronavirus outbreak, officials said Thursday.
After the United States and Mexico last month closed their border to "non-essential travel," U.S. officials began rapidly removing almost all migrants arriving at the border, with minimal processing. For the first time, those turned away en masse include people seeking asylum as well as hundreds of lone migrant children, both groups that are protected by U.S. law.
The actions reflect how the administration -- in response to the pandemic -- is taking steps toward achieving some of President Donald Trump's long-sought goals restricting immigration, in this instance barring asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children from entry into the United States, and with an end-run around the laws and bureaucratic requirements. Administration officials said they are acting to protect U.S. residents according to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"This is not about immigration," the acting commissioner of the Customs and Border Protection agency, Mark Morgan, said repeatedly in a call with reporters. "Right now this is purely about infectious disease and public health."
The unprecedented new steps go beyond existing policies such as one known as "Remain in Mexico." Under that policy, more than 60,000 asylum-seekers had to wait on the Mexican side of the border for immigration hearings in the U.S. Now, with rare exception, migrants do not get the chance to seek protection in the United States, including those attempting to enter at official entry points.
Officials cited a CDC order on March 21, when Director Robert Redfield suspended travelers from Canada or Mexico for 30 days, based on a law dating to 1944, and wrote that "the existence of a communicable disease in a foreign country or place creates a serious danger."
Morgan said asylum and other humanitarian protections are still available to migrants seeking refuge in the United States. Those who show "an appropriate level of fear," he said, "will be processed on a case-by-case-basis."
The numbers of migrants whom U.S. officials have encountered at the southern border in recent weeks have fallen sharply from a high last spring to among the lowest levels in decades. Morgan said most of the arrivals have been adult males from Mexico, followed by Central America's "Northern Triangle" countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The danger is potentially greater for them north of the border. The United States is the global epicenter of the pandemic, with more than 460,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as of late Thursday. Mexico and the three Central American nations combined have fewer than 4,000, less than 1% of the U.S. total.
Democrats in Congress have criticized the administration's actions. A group of senators assailed the Department of Homeland Security for a "power grab" at the border "under the guise of a global pandemic response."