WASHINGTON (CNN) — Both legal and illegal travel at the US borders with Canada and Mexico has drastically changed in the past week following the Trump administration’s stringent restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Lawful vehicle and pedestrian border traffic is down around 70% compared to normal traffic flow, according to an official from the Department of Homeland Security, who added that people are heeding the instructions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to stay home and only travel when necessary.
Illegal border crossings, thie vast majority of which occur at the southwest border, are also down, according to sources. Several Customs and Border Protection employees have also tested positive for the coronavirus, sources tell CNN. The agency is the first line of contact for travelers coming into the US.
Last week, the Trump administration took the unprecedented step of promising to immediately return migrants who illegally cross the border to Mexico, Canada or their country of origin, as well as limiting lawful travel at the ports of entry to only essential traffic.
Effective Saturday, CBP began implementing a CDC authority to suspend entry of all migrants who enter the US without proper documentation.
The new measures do not impact supply chains, including trucking or essential travel, such as work, health care and education. “Commerce and trade are still flowing, which is very critical to make sure that all those goods get through, that those essential workers get through,” the official said.
President Donald Trump has joined countries across the globe in introducing a slate of travel restrictions, which extend from China to Europe’s Schengen Area to the United Kingdom and Ireland, over coronavirus concerns. The latest move largely decreases the amount of traffic coming across the northern and southern land borders.
In practice, most migrants are being returned to Mexico under the new authority, but there are exceptions.
Mexico is accepting returns of Mexican nationals and Central Americans. However, 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.
Unaccompanied migrant children are also exempt from the new protocols and continue to be turned over to US Health and Human Services custody, according to a CBP spokesperson.
ICE has suspended removal flights to Italy, China and South Korea, according to an agency spokesperson.
World events or country conditions can sometimes impact a country’s willingness to accept its citizens with final orders of removal back to their home countries, the spokesperson said, adding that the agency works with foreign governments and the Department of State to address the situation.
“There are obviously going to be hiccups,” the CBP official said. “Whether countries are going to accept flights into their country or whether they’re not.”
The “vast majority” — 70 to 80% — of migrants apprehended by US Border Patrol are being “immediately returned” to Mexico, said the DHS official.
More than 1,000 people have been returned since Saturday, the official added.
“[I]t’s a health care crisis,” said acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan on Fox News on Saturday. “Now once they come across illegally, the men and women of CBP now have the authority, we’re turning them around right there and returning them around to Mexico.”
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 — fingerprints — are also taken in the field.
If a migrant has an active warrant, they would be taken into custody and not immediately returned through port of entry, according to a CBP spokesperson.
The spokesperson said the time for field processing varies, adding that it depends on how long it takes to run biometrics and determine country of origin and next steps. “We need less, not more people in our facilities so that detainees do not increase the risk of infecting other detainees,” the CBP spokesperson said.
The CBP official told CNN that the field processing time is “quick,” in part, because part of the regular processing steps have been removed with the new protocols.
The virus has impacted the frontline officers and agents who monitor the border and the ports of entry. Several CBP employees have tested positive for Covid-19, the DHS official said.
Three US Border Patrol agents working in southern border regions tested positive, Brandon Judd, National Border Patrol Council president told CNN.
“There is nothing more precious than our workforce,” the DHS official said. “There’s nothing more important right now. Maybe as important, but nothing more important.”