Editor's note: This story has been updated throughout.
The country’s southern border will close to all nonessential travel and trade in an effort to combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the Trump administration announced Friday morning.
The policy takes effect at midnight Friday.
“Both our countries know the importance of working together to limit the spread of the virus and ensure the commerce that supports our economy continues to keep flowing,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said during a morning press conference in Washington, D.C.
The policy was a binational effort, Pompeo said, and it will be reviewed in 30 days.
Acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said essential travel includes crossing the border for medical or educational travel, emergency response and “lawful cross-border trade.”
The United States and Canada agreed to the same measures earlier this week.
“We will continue to maintain a strong and secure economic supply chain across our borders,” Wolf said.
Wolf also said federal border agents will immediately return unauthorized crossers apprehended between ports of entry to their countries, citing a mandate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many migrants don’t present medical or travel histories when apprehended, which jeopardizes the health and safety of people in this country, he said. Unauthorized crossers are normally detained in federal facilities for days or weeks, Wolf said, but that confinement could lead to a spread of the virus.
“The CDC ... has determined that the introduction and the spread of the coronavirus in the department’s Border Patrol stations and detention facilities presents a serious danger to migrants, frontline agents and officers, and the American people,” he said. “An outbreak on our southern border will likely increase the strain on health systems in our border communities, taking away important and lifesaving resources from American citizens.”
The administration had been considering returning unauthorized immigrants directly and immediately to Mexico for days, but Mexico Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebard said the country would only accept Mexicans and migrants from other countries subject to the current Migrant Protection Protocols.
The MPP policy was announced in late 2018 and expanded to the Texas-Mexico border a year ago. The policy requires most asylum seekers, including Central Americans, Cubans and South Americans, to stay in Mexico while they wait for their hearings in American immigration courts.
On Friday, Wolf clarified that the United States would work quickly to repatriate foreign nationals to their home countries.
“We’re going to take a number of individuals that cross the border illegally and repatriate them or remove them quickly back to Mexico, back to the Northern Triangle [in Central America] and back to any other country, so we’re going to do that in a rapid fashion,” he said.
Trump added, “Why would Mexico take people that aren’t from Mexico?”
The pushback from human rights groups was swift as they accused the administration of using the pandemic as a way to continue Trump’s hardline immigration policies.
“It's hard to imagine travel more essential than the journey an asylum-seeker makes to flee persecution. Yet today's restrictions, which empower the U.S. to push back people who lack proper documentation, may inexcusably prevent asylum-seekers and unaccompanied children — two of the populations at greatest risk of danger — from accessing safety,” said Charanya Krishnaswami, the Advocacy Director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA.
"This is cruel, short-sighted, and opportunistic," Krishnaswami added. "Every person has the right to seek safety. Full stop."
The ability of the countries to allow trade to continue will be a much-needed boon to both. The United States is already staring at a recession because of the spread of COVID-19, and hindering cross-border commerce with Mexico would have dire consequences.
About 1 million jobs in Texas are dependent on trade, according to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office. And in 2019, Mexico was the United States’ largest trading partner, with more than $614 billion in two-way trade passing between the two countries.
The majority passed through Texas. The ports of Laredo and El Paso saw $227.4 billion and $76.8 billion of that commerce, respectively. That makes those customs districts the country’s busiest, while the ports of Pharr, Eagle Pass, Brownsville and Houston were also in the top 10.
Abbott praised the decision Friday.
“To protect public health and limit the spread of COVID-19 in Texas and United States, President Trump made the appropriate decision today to close the southern border to non-essential travel," Abbott said. "While essential commerce with our state’s largest trade partner can continue, this restriction is no different from the decision the President made to close the northern border with Canada. Texas will continue to collaborate with its local and federal partners as we work to contain the coronavirus.”
Patrick Svitek contributed to this story.