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Trump Closes U.S. Borders. Immigration Grinds To A Halt


Borders across the world are closing because of the coronavirus pandemic. The European Union this week all but walled off the continent from the rest of the world. Now the Trump administration is taking extreme measures, sharply limiting travelers from Canada. The U.S. government has also slowed the processing of immigrants who are already here. NPR's John Burnett covers immigration. He is with us from Austin, Texas. Good morning, John.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: Can we start with the northern border between the United States and Canada? What is the latest there?

BURNETT: Well, President Trump said yesterday that, by mutual consent, the U.S. and Canada will halt all nonessential traffic across the world's longest international border. Both governments are now saying citizens should return home as soon as possible. So it looks like cross-border visits to family and friends or zipping over to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side are over for the time being. Here's the president at a midday press conference yesterday.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It's not affecting trade, so things like that. But just, leisurely, let's go to a restaurant and have dinner, which a lot of people do - they come both ways; they go in both directions - that kind of thing we have ended on a temporary basis.

BURNETT: And it's important - this doesn't affect trade. That's because the U.S. and Canada have one of the largest trading relationships in the world - $2 billion a day in goods and services cross the border. But with the pandemic, there are health concerns on both sides of the border now. Canada has fewer than 700 coronavirus cases; the U.S. now has more than 8,700. For instance, British Columbia shares a border with Washington state, which has had one of the biggest outbreaks of COVID cases.

GREENE: Well, let's turn to the southern border. I mean, obviously, President Trump has had some very controversial policies there. You've covered many of the debates over them. What does that border look like now in terms of what he might be planning given this pandemic?

BURNETT: Well, I mean, keep in mind that our neighbors are more afraid of us than we are of them. Mexico has around 100 reported coronavirus cases, far less than the U.S. Trump told reporters he does not foresee closing the southern border like he has the northern boundary. But he said he would invoke powers very soon that could ban asylum-seekers to keep out communicable diseases.

In other words, an immigrant from Guatemala crosses the Rio Grande without authorization to ask for protection - he doesn't get an asylum interview; he gets sent right back to Mexico. Immigrant advocates are already promising a legal challenge, saying the White House is exploiting this pandemic to push its anti-immigrant agenda.

GREENE: Well, I mean, we've been hearing for months about asylum-seekers who are stuck in Mexico waiting for their asylum cases to be resolved. How will this affect them and their lives here?

BURNETT: Right. Well, you know, there's some 25,000 migrants seeking asylum in these dangerous Mexican border cities. They're waiting for the immigration courts to decide their cases. The worst is probably a sprawling refugee camp in Matamoros, just across the bridge from Brownsville. Yamali (ph) is a young mother from Honduras with three kids. She asked us not to use her last name. She was interviewed inside of her tent.

YAMALI: (Speaking Spanish).

BURNETT: And she says they're in a precarious living condition. They feel very vulnerable to the pandemic. Two thousand people are living cheek by jowl in a park together, tents jammed together. So the 6-foot social distancing recommended by public health experts is a fantasy down there.

GREENE: Yeah, indeed. So what does this mean for the immigration system at large?

BURNETT: Well, we got an email last night from ICE that said they're only going to arrest criminal immigrants and leave everybody else alone, and they're also not going to nab any immigrants near a health care facility. Lots of immigration courts, immigration offices have been closed, and even the arrival of legal refugees to the U.S. from around the world has been suspended. So it's safe to say the borders of the United States are getting more impermeable every day.

GREENE: All right, NPR's John Burnett covers immigration for us. John, thanks a lot.

BURNETT: It's a pleasure, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.