McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — Beginning at midnight Friday evening the U.S. borders with Mexico and Canada will be closed to all non-essential travel to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which the White House likened to a “war” during a briefing Monday morning.

“We announce today the Canada and Mexico have agreed to restrict non-essential trade across our shared border both countries know the importance of working together to stop the spread of the virus,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said. “We’re glad to have these friends working side by side in the fight.”

The order is only for “non-essential travel,” and does not include those needing to cross the border at legal ports of entry for: commerce, trade, education, first-responders, medical or health reasons, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said. The restrictions are set to end on April 20.

“This temporary alteration inland ports of entry operations should not interrupt legitimate trade between the two nations or disrupt critical supply chains that ensure food, fuel, medicine, and other critical materials reach individuals on both sides of the border,” the DHS order issued on Friday read.

Acting Homeland Secretary Chad Wolf is seen on Nov. 21, 2019, visiting the border wall in Donna, Texas, on the Southwest border. He announced on Friday, March 20, 2020, that the U.S./Mexico border would be shut down to “non-essential” travel starting Saturday and said it was to protect Border Patrol agents and the public from the spread of COVID-19. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“Let me be clear, none applies to lawful trade or commerce, essential activities will not be impacted, we will continue the supply chain,” Wolf said.

Pompeo called the step a necessary move as the country is engaged in “a tough fight but the American people are tougher.”

“We’re showing once again the global leadership America has always delivered,” Pompeo said.

Wolf said that all migrants without proper documentation would immediately be returned to Mexico, Canada “and other countries.”

“Tonight at midnight we will execute the order to immediately return individuals arriving without documents to Canada, Mexico and other countries without delay,” Wolf said.

Holding migrants in detention facilities violates CDC recommendations for 6 feet of social distancing between people, he said. It also puts DHS agents, such as those working for the U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement “at risk.”

Wolf said several DHS agents have tested positive for coronavirus and many are self-isolating due to exposure.

“The department has a number of front-line officers who have tested positive,” Wolf said. “I’m doing everything I can to protect these patriots to defend our homeland.”

Trump called coronavirus “an invisible enemy” and said extraordinary measures are needed at this time.

“This is the first time this has ever happened,” Trump said of this unprecedented worldwide pandemic that has thrust the nation into these austere border measures. “The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope.”

U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, a Democrat whose South Texas region includes several international ports that will be affected by the new travel rules, said, “Restrictions at our ports of entry will undoubtedly be damaging to border economies, and similar damage is occurring across all economic sectors. The next several weeks and months will present enormous challenges for our community as the COVID-19 pandemic is wreaking havoc across the country. As Mexico and the United States take measures to flatten the curve, we must find a careful balance that keeps our communities safe and minimizes the economic injury to our businesses and workers. Open dialogue and collaboration with our counterparts in Mexico is the best approach to finding a mutually beneficial path forward.”

South Texas cities will be affected

McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said the shutdown will definitely be felt in the city’s coffers. The city runs the McAllen–Hidalgo–Reynosa International Bridge, which has 7,000 pedestrian and 2,000 vehicular traffic per month.

“We operate the largest bridge with pedestrian crossers in South Texas,” Darling told Border Report on Friday just moments after the president’s announcement to cross the borders to unnecessary travel. “But at the end of the day what we want is to get through this time and get this virus out and be over with. So we’ll do what is necessary and appropriate for everyone.”

The Southwest border is about 2,000 miles long and includes 48 ports of entry, many of which are in South Texas.

After President Trump’s 90-minute news conference, many community leaders expressed relief that the new bridge restrictions will not impact trade and commerce.

The U.S. agricultural sector brings in $1 trillion in annual economic activity — the majority of which passes through the Pharr-Reynosa International Bridge, in Pharr, Texas, which is one of the busiest ports in the nation for the import and export of agriculture. Over 50,000 commercial vehicles cross at this port every month; that’s over $1.2 million in revenue each month, according to bridge reports. One international bridge in Laredo, is the No. 1 port for commercial truck traffic in the nation.

“It is critical that we preserve trade and commerce between the United States and Mexico while also helping protect the health and safety of our citizens,” said U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas whose district includes Laredo.

Trucks wait in line for inspection at one of the ports of entry at Laredo, Texas, on Oct. 1, 2019. (Border Report Photo/ Julian Resendiz

In 2019, Mexico ranked No. 1 in total trade with the United States with $614 billion; Canada was second with $612.12 billion.

“I will continue to work with CBP and Mexico, our economic partner, friend, and neighbor, to ensure our economies are strong and our people are safe. I want to thank the men and women of CBP who are on the front lines every day keeping our country safe and making our country more prosperous,” Cuellar said.

Read a Border Report story on the need to keep ports open to trade and commerce.

Shoppers may continue to cross

Keith Patridge, who is president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation, said border manufacturers, also called maquiladoras, should remain up and running with no problems and that the new regulations will not prevent any factory workers from crossing to get to their jobs.

Keith Patridge is president of the McAllen Economic Development Corporation. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

Late Friday afternoon Patridge was part of a conference call with U.S. port directors where he said it was explained that shoppers also may cross the international bridges without problems “because that is considered to be included in trade and commerce,” he said.

Basically, the restrictions were to forbid port entry for tourism, dining, cultural events, recreation or gambling, he said.

“It was very obvious in the president’s conference this morning that trade and commerce is extremely important for him and for the country,” Patridge said. “We’re looking on everyone and just focused on what the CDC recommends on flattening that curve over the next couple of weeks so hopefully we can get this behind us and we can move on.”

A majority of shoppers use border crossing cards, or laser visas, which are issued to non-U.S. citizens who want to enter the United States temporarily for business or tourism or for a combination of both. It’s unclear of laser visa users would be barred from visiting the U.S. under the temporary travel restrictions.

According to a Department of Homeland Security notice, “essential travel” includes, but is not limited to:

  • U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents returning to the United States
  • Individuals traveling for medical purposes (e.g., to receive medical treatment in the United States)
  • Individuals traveling to attend educational institutions
  • Individuals traveling to work in the United States (e.g., individuals working in the farming or agriculture industry who must travel between the United States and Mexico in furtherance of such work)
  • Individuals traveling for emergency response and public health purposes (e.g., government officials or emergency responders entering the United States to support Federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial government efforts to respond to COVID-19 or other emergencies)
  • Individuals engaged in lawful cross-border trade (e.g., truck drivers supporting the movement of cargo between the United States and Mexico)
  • Individuals engaged in official government travel or diplomatic travel
  • Members of the U.S. Armed Forces, and the spouses and children of members of the U.S. Armed Forces, returning to the United States
  • Individuals engaged in military-related travel or operations.

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