WASHINGTON — The Trump administration plans to immediately turn back all asylum seekers and other foreigners trying to cross the southwestern border illegally, saying they cannot risk allowing the coronavirus to spread through detention facilities and among Border Patrol agents, four administration officials said on Tuesday.
The officials said the ports of entry would remain open to American citizens, green card holders and some foreigners with proper documentation. Some foreigners would be blocked, including Europeans currently subject to earlier travel restrictions enacted by the administration. The entryways will also be open to commercial traffic.
But under the new rule, set to be announced in the next 48 hours, Border Patrol agents would immediately return to Mexico anyone who tries to cross the southern border between the legal ports of entry. Under the policy, asylum seekers would not be held for any length of time in an American facility nor would they be given due process. Once caught, they would be driven to the nearest port of entry and returned to Mexico without further detention.
Although they advised that details of the policy could change before the announcement, administration officials said the effort was critical to avert an outbreak of the coronavirus inside detention facilities along the border.
Such an outbreak could spread quickly through the immigrant population and could infect large numbers of Border Patrol agents, leaving the defenses at the southwestern border weakened, the officials argued. Administration officials say many of the migrants who cross the border are already sick or lack sufficient documents detailing their medical history.
Confirmed cases of the virus in Mexico stand at 82, compared with around 5,600 in the United States and more than 470 in Canada.
Some details of the new rule remained unclear, including whether foreigners seeking asylum or other protections at the ports of entry would be turned back immediately.
But President Trump has suggested multiple times that he could close the border, hoping to crack down on illegal immigration and pressure Mexico to do more to curb the northward flow of migrants.
Long before the coronavirus outbreak, he admonished his top advisers at the Department of Homeland Security about stopping illegal immigration by saying he wanted to “shut it down.” Last spring, as the number of migrants crossing from Central America surged, the president repeatedly threatened to close the border, offering a top official a pardon for the task.
“This is our new statement: The system is full,” the president said last April.
At the time, top aides to the president convinced him that it was not legal to simply turn away all migrants seeking to enter the country. International treaties and American law require asylum seekers to have an opportunity to present their case, although a related policy now allows the administration to make some wait on the Mexican side of the border for their asylum hearings.
The Trump administration has previously tried to push through a policy that would deny asylum to migrants who illegally crossed the southwestern border, an effort the Supreme Court refused to allow in 2018.
But officials insisted on Tuesday that the new policy was not meant to achieve the president’s immigration goals. They said it was driven by the president’s health advisers and would be in effect only as long as the coronavirus remains a threat to the United States.
Officials said the new policy would be based on authorities that can be granted to public health officials in the time of a medical or health emergency, not on immigration laws that the administration has repeatedly cited as justification for past actions at the border. Another official said the administration would invoke a federal legal code that says if the surgeon general identifies “any communicable disease in a foreign country,” he or she can prohibit people from that country from entering the United States.
The new policy also applies to the northern border with Canada, which has already closed its borders to most foreigners — but not Americans — in an attempt to keep the virus at bay. Officials said Mr. Trump would soon also take separate action to further insulate the United States from the possibility of the virus spreading from Canada.
In the next 24 hours, one official said, the United States and Canada plan to issue a joint statement saying that they are suspending nonessential travel between the two countries. That would allow trade to continue, but would restrict flights and border crossings for things like vacations.
Migrants who crossed the border last year were detained for days, weeks or even months. But as the number of such crossings reached its highest point in more than a decade last spring, the crowded and cramped facilities drew widespread condemnation amid photographs of children living in dirty conditions with no soap or toothpaste.
The officials also expressed concern about the health risk of sending migrant children to facilities around the country that are run by the Department of Health and Human Services.
At the same time, officials said that they did not want to return to a policy of letting migrants remain free in the United States while they awaited hearings in the immigration courts, a policy Mr. Trump has derided as “catch and release.” Doing so could allow migrants with the coronavirus to add to the burden on American hospitals, officials said.
Border crossings have declined drastically since last spring after the administration enacted aggressive policies, like forcing asylum seekers to wait in Mexico as their immigration cases are adjudicated.
The coronavirus outbreak has also halted a Trump administration program that had diverted to Guatemala more than 900 asylum seekers trying to enter the United States. The government there suspended the flights as a way to prevent the domestic spread of the virus.
Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Michael D. Shear reported from Washington, and Maggie Haberman from New York.