By Sylvia Longmire
Columnist, In Homeland Security
The novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, has been a part of American life for almost three months, and it has had an impact on virtually every government sector. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is certainly one of those sectors, and they have announced several changes that component agencies have made as a result. However, many questions linger over the extent of the COVID-19 impact on border security and immigration.
US-Canada Border Closed
On March 21, the Canadian government closed the U.S.-Canada border to all non-essential travel in an effort to slow down the spread of COVID-19. According to Canada’s Global News, the border remains open for essential travel, which includes the transportation of goods and travel for work, in order to not hamper trade and the supply chains between the two countries.
Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said those who require crossing the border to live their daily lives, such as to shop for groceries, will not be affected. She also said students who hold valid visas, temporary foreign workers and anyone with valid work responsibilities will be allowed to cross as well.
Troops Near The Canadian Border?
Very recently, the Canadian border closure seems to have caused some concern within the Trump administration for not being restrictive enough. According to Canada’s Global News sources, American government officials inside the White House were actively discussing putting troops near the Canadian border.
Very few people cross illegally from Canada into the U.S. each year, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau confirmed the news while giving his daily briefing to reporters from Rideau Cottage, acknowledging that conversations are taking place. “Canada and the United States have the longest un-militarized border in the world and it is very much in both of our interests for it to remain that way,” he said.
On the same day, the U.S. government established a similar restriction on non-essential travel across the U.S.-Mexico border. A DHS press release stated, in part, “…we agree our two countries, in response to the ongoing global and regional health situation, require particular measures both to protect bilateral trade and our countries’ economies and ensure the health of our nations’ citizens.” Furthermore, the release explained that non-essential travel includes travel that is considered tourism or recreational in nature. At the time, the White House had not indicated it was considering sending troops to the southwest border.
Pentagon Expects To Send Troops
That changed on March 26. Two U.S. officials told NPR that the Pentagon expects to send 1,500 troops to the nation’s borders with Canada and Mexico to assist Customs and Border Protection operations. Specifically, the officials said the plan is to send up to 1,000 troops to the border with Canada to assist Customs and Border Protection as concern about COVID-19 increases. Around 500 more troops will likely head to the Mexican border to help CBP there.
Mexico Concerned That Americans Will Spread COVID-19
Ironically, some Mexicans are concerned about Americans bringing more COVID-19 cases into Mexico. According to BBC News, residents in Sonora, south of Arizona, have promised to block traffic into Mexico for a second day after closing a checkpoint for hours on March. Despite the border closure on March 21, protesters said there has been little enforcement and no testing by authorities, and are calling for enforcement of the crossing ban on all U.S. or Mexican citizens for tourism or medical reasons, including those who cross the border every day to attend school or work in the United States.
Migration Protection Protocols
DHS is continuing to enforce the Migration Protection Protocols (MPP) program, through which asylum seekers are returned to Mexico to await their asylum hearings. However, the hearing schedule has been modified due to COVID-19.
According to a joint DHS/EOIR statement, “All Migrant Protection Protocol (MPP) master calendar and merit hearings presently scheduled through April 22 will be rescheduled. Neither the MPP program nor any hearings will be cancelled.” Furthermore, “Any individual with an MPP hearing date through April 22 should present themselves at their designated port of entry on their previously scheduled date to receive a tear sheet and hearing notice containing their new hearing dates.” Migrants from countries outside North America are being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in an attempt to send them back to their country of origin.
Swimming Masks Worn To Visit Detention Centers
As of March 26, San Diego’s immigration court is one of many that are still open for filing documents and holding hearings for people held in immigration detention centers. According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, some attorneys entering detention facilities have resorted to using swimming masks to visit their clients. At Otay Mesa Detention Center, which has its own court, judges and attorneys still have to go in and out daily along with the guards and officers who work inside, increasing the likelihood that someone will unknowingly bring in the virus.
The new border restrictions have caused a decrease in border crossings, but they’re still happening. According to CNN, the “vast majority” (70 to 80 percent) of migrants apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol are being “immediately returned” to Mexico, said a DHS official. When migrants are apprehended, agents are processing them in the field in order to return them across the border without bringing them inside Border Patrol stations. Biographic information is gathered and in some areas along the border, biometrics – including fingerprints – are also taken in the field. The same official said that several CBP employees have tested positive for COVID-19, but did not provide more information.
Detainees Protest Conditions
This begs the question of how enforcement operations are proceeding. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has acknowledged that a member of the medical administrative staff of an ICE detention center in Elizabeth, New Jersey, tested positive for coronavirus, and indicated in a statement that “Currently, no ICE detainees or other staff are symptomatic for COVID-19 at this facility.” However, hunger strikes have broken out in three ICE detention centers in New Jersey—including the center in Elizabeth—as detainees protest what they describe as deteriorating conditions and a failure to adequately address the potential spread of COVID-19.
Border Patrol Supervisor Tests Positive For COVID-19
On March 26, the Laredo Morning Times reported that a Laredo (Texas) Sector Border Patrol supervisor had tested positive for COVID-19. The Laredo chapter of the National Border Patrol Council indicated the supervisor worked at the Laredo North Border Patrol station as part of the K-9 unit. A CNN report reported that “at least 15 other agents” were sent home to self-quarantine as a result of the positive test. According to the union, the spouse of the agent tested positive earlier this week. The supervisor, however, worked his normal shift before learning of the news and starting his self-quarantine.