President Trump’s get-tough immigration policies last year left the U.S. better ready to face the COVID-19 pandemic, the country’s border chief said Thursday, saying they derailed hundreds of thousands of migrants from entering the country illegally this year, any of whom could have been an entry point for the virus.
Both legal and illegal traffic across the border has plummeted, and Customs and Border Protection has been able to empty out its border holding facilities, dramatically reducing the risk of spread there as well, said acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan.
As of Thursday, fewer than 100 migrants were being held in CBP facilities. That’s down from a staggering 20,000 people in those same facilities last May, amid the migrant surge.
“This is something that everybody should celebrate and see as a good thing,” Mr. Morgan said.
While legal commercial traffic is still running fairly strong — thanks to the trade agreement made between the U.S., Mexico and Canada — noncommercial vehicular traffic is down more than 70%, and pedestrian traffic is down more than 75%.
Mr. Morgan said that means about 400,000 fewer people crossing the border each day, as people embrace shelter-in-place orders.
For immigrants crossing the southwest border illegally, March only saw a slight dip compared to February. But that’s because the beginning of the month saw significant increases in illegal traffic — before the border limits were imposed.
Before the limits, CBP was seeing nearly 10,000 unauthorized crossers a week. The number last week, amid the limits, was fewer than 4,000.
Mr. Morgan said 80% of them are being pushed back across the border within a few hours, under an emergency procedure of the Public Health Service Act, triggered by a March 21 order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The 20% that are not being immediately pushed back are being quickly transferred from CBP to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is running special flights to return people to their home countries quickly, Mr. Morgan said.
Mr. Morgan said the goal is to keep people out of the CBP border holding facilities, which weren’t designed for the social distancing requirements of the battle against COVID-19, and could have become a tinderbox for the virus to spread.
“This is not about immigration. What’s transpiring right now is purely about the infectious disease and public health,” Mr. Morgan said.
Over the two weeks the CDC order has been in place, nearly 10,000 people have been immediately returned, Mr. Morgan said.
Illegal traffic at the ports of entry has dropped faster than crossings between the ports.
Immigrant-rights activists have protested the severe border limits, arguing they may be denying asylum-seekers protections here, and are stranding vulnerable children.
They also have complained that CBP is still building the border wall amid the virus crisis.
Several House committee chairs wrote a letter this week saying the construction workers themselves could be a vector for the virus, either bringing it from their homes into the border communities where they’re now working, or bringing it from the border back home later.
The Democratic lawmakers also complained that the money Mr. Trump has siphoned from the Defense Department and toward wall-building could be better used to respond to the coronavirus crisis.
“There is no time to spare,” they wrote. “Border wall construction should have been halted weeks ago.”
Mr. Morgan on Thursday defended the wall, saying it shapes the flow of illegal immigration, making it easier to catch those trying to cross without permission — particularly important with the virus.
“Now more than ever, borders matter. Border security matters. The wall matters,” he said.