Since its emergence, the novel coronavirus and its resulting disease, COVID-19, have spread across the globe. The World Health Organization characterized the viral outbreak as a pandemic on March 11 of this year. As a result of the pandemic, travel and border regulation has been affected. On May 19, the extension of two border-related orders—one made by the United States Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the other by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS)—was announced. The first order continues the expedited removal of migrants, including those seeking asylum, who have been stopped along the border; the second prolongs the limiting of travel from Mexico and Canada into the U.S. As of today, the border closure has now been extended into July.
Background on the CDC Order
As Time reports, the CDC extended another order on May 19, one which “authorizes Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to immediately remove migrants—including people seeking asylum—as a way to prevent the potential spread of the virus while in custody.” Initially, the Trump Administration issued the order in March under a 30-day term and consequently renewed it for another month. This order, issued by Dr. Robert Redfield, has no fixed end date; the CDC does say, however, that it will review data every 30 days to determine whether or not the order continues to be necessary. Redfield has said that the order will persist so long as “the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health.”
More specifically, the order allows CBP to send Mexican and Central American migrants encountered along the US-Mexico border back to Mexico in approximately two hours. Migrants who are from other countries are handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), where they can be processed for rapid repatriation. As stated above, no exceptions are made for migrants who are seeking asylum. Previously, those in such a position might remain in the U.S. for months, possibly years, to pursue their claims. Now, these claims are disregarded and the migrants are removed. This change has led to the criticism that “the U.S. is using health as a pretext to deny people the right to seek asylum and to enact immigration policies aimed at appealing to supporters of the president in an election year.”
The order applies to migrants encountered across the U.S.-Canada border as well. It should be noted, however, that the numbers for such encounters are far fewer than those in the southwest.
Background on the Border Closures
On March 20, the United States put into effect temporary restrictions on its borders with both Mexico and Canada. These initial restrictions have since been lengthened: on May 19, the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released documents announcing the decision to temporarily limit the travel of individuals from Mexico and Canada into the U.S. to only that which is deemed as “essential.” This extension went into effect on May 21 and will be upheld until June 22. On June 16, it was announced that a renewal of the border closure has been made once again, this time until July 21.
Chad Wolf, the Acting Secretary of Homeland Security, has determined that “the risk of continued transmission and spread of COVID-19 between the United States and Mexico [and Canada] posed a ‘specific threat to human life or national interests.'” As of May 18, even before this extension was put into place, there were over 4.6 million confirmed cases globally and over 310,000 confirmed deaths. Within the United States alone, there were over 1.4 million confirmed and probable cases, while in Mexico and Canada there were 47,000 and 76,000 confirmed cases, respectively. In his most recent statement, Secretary Wolfe claims that this third extension is "based the success of the existing restrictions and the emergence of additional global COVID-19 hotspots" and that Americans will be protected "while keeping essential trade and travel flowing as we reopen the American economy."
Defining “Essential Travel”
“Essential travel,” as outlined by the Department of Homeland Security Notification, consists of:
- U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States;
- Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States);
- Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions;
Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Canada/Mexico in furtherance of such work);
Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies);
Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Canada/Mexico);
Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel;
- Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States; and
Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.
Essential travel does not, however, consist of "individuals traveling for tourism purposes (e.g., sightseeing, recreation, gambling, or attending cultural events)." Additionally, the documents state that the restrictions do not apply to air, freight rail, or sea travel between the United States and Mexico, but does apply to passenger rail, passenger ferry travel, and pleasure boat travel between the United States and Mexico/Canada.
Border Closure: Canada vs. Mexico
The closure of the borders has different significance for Mexico and Canada. This temporary limit on travel no doubt affects the 200,000 people who would normally cross the northern U.S.-Canada border on a daily basis. That being said, the closure is perhaps more widely felt in the southwest. USA Today, for example, notes that Mexico is the seventh most-visited country around the world, according to Mexico tourism data, and 26 million U.S. travelers visited Mexico from January to August 2019, according to the U.S. National Travel and Tourism Office. As highlighted by the CDC order discussed above, the U.S.-Mexico border is also a source of notable political contention as a result of migrant encounters. The current administration is particularly known for its strict take on the issue—a view which dates to the 2016 campaign and Trump's call to “build the wall” along the border.
What is to come?
As of June 15, data from the World Health Organization shows that the coronavirus pandemic has not been resolved: worldwide, there are 7,823,289 cases and there has been a total of 431,541. The CDC reports that, in the U.S. alone, there have been 2,104,346 confirmed cases and over 116,140 deaths as of June 16. Given this, it comes as no surprise that the border closure will continue into July.