The overwhelming majority of those trying to enter the country illegally are being “expeditiously” returned rather than put into detention, in part because of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order in March to combat the coronavirus crisis, the head of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) testified Thursday.
The CDC order, issued in late March in response to the coronavirus crisis, suspends “the introduction of persons from designated countries or places, if required, in the interest of public health.” It allows the federal government to return those entering the country illegally or seeking asylum back to their country of origin in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
While the Trump administration has implemented a number of measures to deal with illegal immigration — including the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) — acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan testified to the House Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the effect of the order has been dramatic.
“Early on, after the order, we saw those trying to illegally enter our country drop by more than 50 percent from our pre-COVID numbers,” he said, although he emphasized the CDC order was for public health, not immigration.
“Rather than introduce the illegal aliens into our facilities, increasing exposure risk to our workforce and our country, CBP, because of this order, is returning approximately 95 percent of those that we encounter expeditiously to the country of last transit,” he said.
He testified that CBP now has an average of 150 to 200 migrants in custody, compared to the approximately 20,000 migrants in custody during the peak of the 2019 border crisis. He also said that there has been a 70 percent drop in unaccompanied minors coming to the border.
The Trump administration reacted to the 2019 crisis by ramping up MPP in cooperation with the Mexican government, which allows migrants to be returned to Mexico to await their hearings. It also signed a series of asylum cooperation agreements with Northern Triangle countries — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — which it has also credited with lowering apprehensions and detentions by reducing pull factors that draw migrants north. Morgan said that the driving force of the crisis, families from those countries, had dropped by 94 percent.
Since the pandemic, the administration has also increased the pace of construction of the wall at the southern border, which Morgan says is vital in stopping not only illegal immigrants — but also the flow of illegal drugs across the border.
Morgan, in his testimony, asked lawmakers what would have happened if the coronavirus pandemic would have happened during the 2019 border crisis, considering that just one infected person could lead to multiple infections in an enclosed space.
“Can you imagine what we’d be going through now if we were going through this pandemic the same time last year when our southwest border facilities were overwhelmed and overcrowded with families and children?”