- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2020

The U.S. will shut down its northern and southern borders Friday night to all but “essential” traffic amid the coronavirus crisis, officials announced, including immediately returning all illegal immigrants before they are given a chance to gain a foothold here.

Health Secretary Alex Azar said his department is triggering a section of the Public Health Act that allows the move, declaring illegal immigration to be a dangerous avenue for COVID-19 cases and a burden on the U.S. health system.

Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said essential travel is still allowed, and the definition is quite broad. Tourism and illegal immigration are the biggest areas affected.

“Neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce,” Mr. Wolf said at the White House, standing with President Trump, who announced the moves.

That means medicine, fuel and other supply lines can be maintained.

Americans and legal U.S. residents can return home from Canada, and those with medical appointments or who commute to attend school or work across the border can also cross.

U.S. officials said they worked with both Canada and Mexico, who have agreed to their own restrictions.

Mexico is also moving to suspend air travel from Mexico, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, matching America’s move and preventing Europeans from using Mexico as a workaround to get into the U.S.

Shutting down the border to illegal immigration means that those arriving without permission, who previously would be processed on U.S. ground and kept in detention facilities or released into communities while they await deportation cases, can be immediately returned to Mexico.

Officials said that prevents them from having to end up in crowded detention facilities where the risk of COVID-19 spread is higher.

“It won’t be the six, seven or 10 days we currently have,” Mr. Wolf said.

He said said illegal immigrants are coming from countries where COVID-19 cases are rapidly spreading, making the shutdown all the more urgent.

Those from Mexico will be immediately returned to Mexico, Mr. Trump said, while those from other countries such as Central America will be removed back to their home nations.

Amnesty International complained that the move will strand refugees fleeing persecution, and it could also leave juvenile migrants traveling without parents — what the government calls Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UACs — in danger.

“This is cruel, short-sighted, and opportunistic,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, an Amnesty official. “Every person has the right to seek safety. Full stop.”

Mr. Pompeo said the new border restrictions won’t affect foreign guest-worker programs such as farm workers who plan to come to the U.S. on H-2A visas.

He said they are considered essential to the economy.

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