The administration’s top border official said Thursday that illegal immigrants have a duty to the world to stop coming to the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, saying some of them are making the trip knowing they have the disease and risk spreading it far and wide.
Mark Morgan, acting head of Customs and Border Protection, said illegal border crossings rose about 25% in July compared with a month earlier.
Mr. Morgan said dozens are packed inside stash houses and motel rooms, or stuffed into trunks or tractor-trailers, which he called “perfect incubators for COVID-19.”
“It’s not about migrants risking their lives any longer,” he said. “It’s way beyond that. Now they’re risking the lives of everyone they come in contact with.”
He pointed out that the migrants are defying their own countries’ travel rules by making the journey.
“They should comply with the travel restrictions of their own countries and heed the warnings of medical experts. If they do, lives will be saved,” Mr. Morgan said.
CBP encountered nearly 41,000 people attempting to enter the U.S. without permission last month, up from fewer than 33,000 in June. It’s the highest number recorded so far this year, and it signals the end to a lull in illegal immigration. Numbers plummeted in April and May during the height of the coronavirus crisis.
More than 90% of those nabbed are being processed and shipped out of the country immediately, with a two-hour turnaround for most.
The others are, in most instances, special humanitarian cases, such as children who appear to have been abused or trafficked.
The expulsions are happening because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention triggered part of the Public Health Act, which the administration says allows rejection of any unauthorized migrants.
From March through the end of July, a little more than 98,000 have been expelled under those powers, known as Title 42 because of the section of law they are written into.
By contrast, only about 8,500 were accepted into CBP custody as regular illegal immigrants.
Mr. Morgan said of those, about 60 have tested positive for COVID-19. Those who are expelled and may have had the disease would not generally show in those numbers.
Critics say thousands of valid asylum cases have been excluded under the health emergency.
But Mr. Morgan defended the policy as life-saving because of migrants’ travel conditions. In the early summer last year, during the height of the border surge, CBP was holding up to 20,000 illegal immigrants in fenced-in pens, which Mr. Morgan said would have been a disaster in the era of COVID-19.
“A single COVID illegal alien could infect hundreds of other illegal aliens, as well as our workforce,” he said. “It would be catastrophic. Title 42 is preventing such a catastrophe.”
Even with the constraints, Mr. Morgan said, 10 CBP employees have died “in the line of duty” because of the coronavirus.
Mr. Morgan said the CDC is making decisions on when to lift the public health expulsion order but that the calculation goes well beyond the state of the coronavirus spread in the U.S.
With cases and deaths soaring in Mexico, the staging point for illegal crossers, chances of infections being carried over are high no matter what the trajectory in the U.S. is.
The number of migrants nabbed is just one part of the border story. What is not known is how many eluded agents and sneaked into the interior.
Laredo has become a particular hot spot of truck smuggling in recent weeks, with dozens of migrants packed into tight quarters.
In mid-July, agents at a highway checkpoint west of Laredo nabbed a Freightliner truck with 35 illegal immigrants in the trailer, tucked behind pallets of iron ornaments. Agents measured the temperature inside the trailer at 126 degrees.
According to an affidavit filed in the case, the driver admitted working with a smuggling organization. She said she was supposed to take the 35 migrants from Laredo to San Antonio and expected to be paid $6,500 for the trip.
One Honduran migrant agents found in the trailer said he paid $11,000 to be smuggled to Indianapolis. Two Mexicans, a boyfriend and girlfriend, said they were paying $10,684 for both of them and were headed to South Carolina.
They reported that the man who loaded them into the truck did wear a medical mask.
On Wednesday, agents manning another Laredo-area checkpoint found 53 illegal immigrants inside a refrigerated trailer.
On Monday, agents in Douglas, Arizona, nabbed a Ford F-250 pickup truck that had 30 illegal immigrants piled into the vehicle. All of them were Mexican, and all were expelled back to Mexico under Title 42 authority.