March 17, 2020 / 11:49 PM / 15 days ago

U.S. plans to turn back migrants caught at Mexican border, cites coronavirus - sources

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Trump administration is considering immediately returning any foreigners caught at the U.S.-Mexico border to Mexico, arguing the step is necessary to combat the fast-spreading coronavirus, according to two administration officials.

The measure, which remains under discussion, would apply to migrants caught crossing the illegally outside ports of entry and would not affect legal immigration or commercial traffic, the officials said.

However, two other officials, with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), disputed that removing all foreigners caught at the border to Mexico was under consideration.

The Mexican government, meanwhile, said late Tuesday that it has not received any formal proposal from U.S. officials, according to a brief statement from the country’s foreign ministry.

The statement added that Mexico would analyze the reach of any such proposal, pledging to act in defense of its own interests, public health and human rights.

The possible U.S. administration move, first reported by The New York Times, would likely face court challenges ad may require the cooperation of the Mexican government.

The Trump administration has sought to escalate its response to the coronavirus in recent weeks as the disease has spread across the United States, causing schools and businesses to shutter while killing more than 100 people nationwide.

The DHS and CBP officials said separately on Tuesday that U.S. border officials would step up returns of Mexican nationals caught crossing the border illegally through an existing authority known as a “voluntary return.”

Under that practice, U.S. officials can offer Mexican nationals caught at the border the option to return to Mexico as an alternative to formal deportation proceedings in the United States.

“If we return people immediately without taking them back to our processing centers, then you’re minimizing the exposure,” the CBP official said.

All four officials requested anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plans.

Immigrant rights groups slammed the idea of mass returns of foreign nationals to Mexico.

“People fleeing violence from Mexico and Central American countries are actually at greater the risk of contracting coronavirus in the United States than in their home countries at this point,” said Linda Rivas, executive director at advocacy group Las Americas in El Paso.

Mexico has reported 82 coronavirus cases so far, compared with nearly 6,000 in the United States.

The United States already sends non-Mexican asylum seekers to that country under a program known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP). The U.S. Supreme Court allowed that program to remain in effect last week pending the outcome of a legal challenge.

In a separate move on Tuesday, Guatemalan government said on Tuesday that it had suspended the entrance of deportation flights from the United States amid concerns over the spread of the coronavirus.

Reporting by Ted Hesson, Steve Holland and Kristina Cooke; Additional reporting Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Makini Brice and Alexandra Alper in Washington; Editing by Leslie Adler and Gerry Doyle

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