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Illegal border crossings fell dramatically in April, as U.S. expels thousands using Trump’s coronavirus emergency authority

People stand in line to enter the United States at a border crossing in Matamoros, Mexico, on Wednesday. (Go Nakamura/Bloomberg News)

Unauthorized crossings along the U.S. southern border dropped by 50 percent in April, according to federal enforcement statistics released Thursday, as the Trump administration continued to use its emergency public health authority to bypass normal immigration proceedings and summarily expel migrants.

Border authorities detained 16,789 migrants last month, the latest data show, down from 34,064 in March, the month when U.S. Customs and Border Protection began carrying out “expulsions” under a 1940s-era provision of U.S. law, Title 42.

CBP made 14,416 expulsions in April along the U.S. southern border, with U.S. agents quickly detaining, processing and returning migrants to Mexico in a matter of hours. As a result, the agency has been able to minimize the number of detainees held in U.S. border stations. Such detentions have dropped from more than 3,000 per day to about 100, CBP officials said.

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President Trump has repeatedly sought to deflect criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic by highlighting his administration’s unprecedented immigration and border restrictions, including policies announced last month that tightened green card eligibility.

Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, insisted once more during a call with reporters that the expulsions at the border should be regarded as public health measures, not a form of immigration policy.

“What has not be realized, in the public forum, is the public health risk associated with illegal immigration,” Morgan said, citing the cramped quarters and poor sanitary conditions to which many migrants are exposed while en route to the U.S. border. “The president’s proactive and aggressive containment and mitigation network of common-sense policies and initiatives with respect to covid-19 has been both historic and effective to slow the spread of the disease.”

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Morgan said the emergency measures likely will remain in place even as the White House encourages states and businesses to reopen, arguing that the virus is still spreading in Mexico and Central America.

“The threat we face from outside our borders, from this global infectious disease, highlights the need now more than ever before for border security,” he said.

Though Trump administration officials have tried to emphasize the external threat of the virus, the United States continues to have the worst outbreak in the world, with more than 1.2 million confirmed cases and more than 75,000 deaths. The U.S. cases are approximately 33 percent of the worldwide total, and the deaths are 28 percent of all virus-related fatalities across the globe. The United Kingdom has the second-highest death total, with just fewer than 31,000 deaths, and Italy is third, with just fewer than 30,000.

Among the countries that are the largest source of migrants to the U.S. southern border, Mexico has reported 27,634 cases and 2,704 deaths; Honduras has reported 1,461 cases and 99 deaths; Guatemala has reported 798 cases and 21 deaths; and El Salvador has reported 695 cases and 15 deaths.

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Mexican authorities have agreed to accept expelled foreign nationals from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, as well as their own citizens, and the four countries account for approximately 95 percent of all illegal crossings, according to CBP figures cited by Morgan.

Single male adults from Mexico accounted for 68 percent of border detentions, Morgan said. About 25 percent of those expelled under the emergency measures are rearrested.

CBP encountered its first border crosser with the coronavirus on April 23, an Indian national detained in California’s El Centro sector, according to Morgan. The individual was handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation, he said. Border agents were able to minimize exposure to staff and other migrants because they have so much spare capacity in the holding cells of border stations as a result of the expulsion measures, Morgan said.

“Fewer CBP employees are unnecessarily exposed to this deadly virus,” he said. “Fewer American citizens. Fewer U.S. health-care workers, and fewer migrants themselves.”

The CBP enforcement statistics for April were the second-lowest monthly tally since Trump took office, amounting to an 85 percent reduction from April 2019, when border authorities detained 109,415 amid a record-breaking influx of Central American families and children seeking asylum.

The Trump administration embarked on a broad crackdown along the border last summer that had already curbed access to the U.S. immigration system for asylum seekers, but the emergency health orders have gone a step further. The suspension of anti-trafficking laws has also allowed CBP to expel underage migrants, who are turned over to authorities in Mexico and Central America.

Morgan also said his agency is accelerating construction of the president’s border wall, with 179 linear miles now complete and crews on track to finish 450 miles by the end of 2020.