McALLEN — In an effort to minimize risks and exposure to U.S. Border Patrol agents and detainees in detention facilities, agents are immediately expelling people apprehended between ports of entry.
During a call with media members, U.S. Border Patrol officials said this change in operations is meant to reduce the exposure its agents and those held in detention centers have to COVID-19.
Officials said agents encountering people attempting to enter the country illegally, between ports of entry, will process them at a mobile processing unit out in the field, and immediately expel them from the country through the nearest port of entry.
The only exception would be for anyone who has a prior aggravated criminal offense, and is deemed to be a “threat to the U.S. and or Mexico,” the officials said. Those people will be arrested, and taken in to be processed at a detention center.
The switch in procedure with regard to how Border Patrol agents approached newly apprehended persons was expected after DHS announced the travel restrictions at the border.
Officials said Border Patrol agents are supplied with personal protective equipment.
On Friday, DHS announced it would restrict travel at the border to only “essential” travelers.
Essential travel includes, but is not limited to U.S. citizens or permanent residents returning to the U.S., people traveling for medical purposes, in the case of receiving treatment in the U.S., people traveling to attend educational institutions, and those returning to the U.S. in the agriculture and farming industries.
Additionally, those traveling as part of an emergency response team, government officials, or emergency responders, and those who work in cross-border trade, such as truck drivers moving cargo between the U.S. and Mexico.
This new restriction is expected to end at midnight April 20, according to a release from DHS.
Meanwhile, pressure was mounting on the Trump administration Wednesday to release people from immigration detention facilities where at least one detainee has tested positive for COVID-19 and advocates fear tight quarters and overall conditions could cause rapid spread of the virus.
The U.S. holds around 37,000 people in immigration detention. Detainees and advocates say many are vulnerable because of age and pre-existing medical conditions, and because they are often held in open rooms, beds 3-feet apart, and without adequate supplies of masks or other protections.
The agency, which reported the positive test of a 31-year-old man from Mexico held in Bergen County, New Jersey, on Tuesday, has announced steps to protect detained migrants and staff from the virus, but hasn’t said whether it plans to review cases for possible release because of the outbreak. It did not immediately respond to a request to comment on the complaints about conditions from the detainees and their advocates.
Immigrant advocates, including the American Civil Liberties Union, filed lawsuits in California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and elsewhere, seeking court orders for the immediate release of people in immigration detention, especially those at risk because of their age or medical conditions.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.