March 18, 2020 / 11:06 PM / 5 months ago

More Mexican migrants crossing U.S. border amid closure fears, shelters say

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The number of Mexicans crossing illegally into the United States has risen over the past week, migrant shelters said, in part driven by rumors the United States will seal the border as it seeks to fight the coronavirus spread.

FILE PHOTO: A woman walks towards El Paso, Texas, U.S. at the international border bridge Paso del Norte, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico March 13, 2020. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez/File Photo

Representatives of four migrant shelters in northern Mexico told Reuters that they had seen an uptick in Mexican migrants heading to the border.

“There are more people crossing the desert,” said Marla Conrad, a social worker for the Kino border initiative in the city of Nogales, close to the U.S. border.

Reuters was unable to determine how many had crossed.

Conrad said that, among other factors, some of the migrants she spoke to said they had accelerated travel plans over the last week in anticipation the United States would implement stricter measures at the border.

U.S. President Donald Trump has warned of pending measures to tighten security at the border as his government seeks to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

On Wednesday, he said his administration will use a health-focused statute to swiftly remove migrants or asylum seekers who cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

He also said the U.S.-Canada border would shut to “non-essential traffic.”

The Trump administration is also 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, two administration sources told Reuters on Tuesday.

The administration has been very sensitive to even slight increases in border apprehensions.

After a peak in May last year of more than 133,000 overall apprehensions led to threats of tariffs from Trump, Mexico stepped up containment of migrants from neighboring Central American nations.

Apprehensions fell steadily for eight months but ticked up to around 30,000 in February, according to Customs and Border Protection figures.

The Department of Homeland Security and CBP did not immediately respond to a request for information about border apprehensions in March.

The United States has reported just over 4,700 coronavirus cases and 87 deaths, paralysing the country. In Mexico, there have been 82 confirmed cases of coronavirus and no deaths.

Mexico’s foreign ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Additional reporting by Ted Hesson; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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