COVID-19: Restrictions on Travelers at U.S. Land Borders

COVID-19: Restrictions on Travelers at U.S.
Land Borders

Updated July 6, 2020
New actions by the federal government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic restrict the entry of
certain foreign nationals into the United States. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), within the
Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), have recently issued orders regarding
travelers arriving at land ports of entry (POEs) at both the northern and southern borders of the United
DHS: Non-essential Travel Restrictions
DHS has issued two orders to temporarily restrict non-essential travel through ports of entry on the
borders between the United States and Canada and Mexico to reduce the risk of exposure to and
transmission of COVID-19. These orders restrict “al non-essential travel across borders,” loosely defined
as recreational travel or tourism between the countries. “Essential travel” includes returning U.S. citizens,
lawful permanent residents, and U.S. military and their immediate family members, among others. Cross-
border travel associated with lawful trade is not subject to these restrictions. Under these orders, at land
POEs individuals (regardless of nationality) who are not considered “essential travelers” by an
immigration officer wil not be permitted to enter the United States. The order does not apply to air,
freight rail, or sea travel between the United States and Mexico or Canada, but it does apply to personal
vehicles, pedestrians, passenger rail, and ferry travel.
CDC: Suspending the Introduction of Certain Persons
A CDC order, citing public health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, bars the entry of many
individuals under the authority of Sections 362 and 365 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C.
§§265, 268). These provisions al ow the CDC Director to suspend the “introduction” of foreign nationals
from countries where a communicable disease exists if the director determines that their admission would
create an increased public health danger to the United States. The restrictions were original y in effect
through April 20, 2020, but have been extended through June 22, 2020.
Congressional Research Service
Prepared for Members and
Committees of Congress

Congressional Research Service
DHS has informed CDC that CBP’s facilities are not equipped to effectively quarantine, isolate, or
conduct social distancing onsite for COVID-19. Those that must be held in congregate settings at POEs or
in border patrol stations to facilitate immigration processing would typical y be aliens “seeking to enter
the United States at POEs who do not have proper travel documents, aliens whose entry is otherwise
contrary to law, and aliens who are apprehended near the border seeking to unlawfully enter the United
States between POEs.” These non-U.S. nationals are considered “covered aliens” by the CDC order. The
order cal s for the “immediate suspension of the introduction of these aliens” and “requires the movement
of al such aliens to the country from which they entered the United States, or their country of origin, or
another location as practicable, as rapidly as possible.”
The CDC order al ows for individualized exceptions to these rules, based on “the totality of the
circumstances, including consideration of significant law enforcement, officer and public safety,
humanitarian, and public health interests.”
Implications for Migrants without Valid Documents
These new orders disrupt the standards in place for migrants who request asylum either at a POE or when
encountered by CBP’s U.S. Border Patrol (USBP) after crossing a land border without detection into the
United States. Many migrants approaching POEs without valid documents or crossing into the United
States between POEs (i.e., covered aliens) intend to request asylum. Ordinarily, under standard practices,
foreign nationals arriving at POEs without entry documents would be subject to inadmissibility
determinations under statute (8 U.S.C. §1182), but others may be able to request asylum. Under the new
orders, those who might have been admitted for the purposes of seeking asylum wil likely be returned
immediately either to the country they transited through (e.g., Canada or Mexico) or, in some cases, their
country of origin.
At this time, there are media reports that the usual protocol to screen migrants to initiate claims of asylum
in the United States is not being followed. However, the orders described above may not restrict those
who request asylum affirmatively directly to USBP. Moreover, unaccompanied children are not exempt
from the CDC order. Guidance to CBP immigration officers has not been made public and asylum
processing, for the most part, appears to be on hold, raising a number of legal issues.
Currently, by agreement with Mexico, only migrants from Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of
Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are sent back to Mexico. Migrants from other Latin American
countries may be put into the Migrant Protection Protocol program (MPP, also known as “Remain in
Mexico”). Those from al other countries are sent to ICE detention with removal orders.
For migrants already enrolled in the MPP program, a joint statement from DHS and the Executive Office
of Immigration Review of the Department of Justice says that court dates presently scheduled through
May 1 wil be rescheduled. Migrants are instructed to present themselves at their designated POE on their
previously scheduled court date to receive a notice containing their new hearing dates.
Other International Travel Restrictions Currently in Place
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, international travel restrictions to the United States have been put into
place to slow its spread.
On January 31, President Trump issued a proclamation restricting the entry of most non-U.S. nationals
who had been physical y present in mainland China in the prior two weeks. This entry restriction was
subsequently extended to Iran, the Schengen area of Europe, and the UK and Ireland. In addition, al U.S.
citizens, lawful permanent residents, and immediate family members entering from these areas are asked
to stay home and self-monitor their health for 14 days. Although these existing restrictions have been

Congressional Research Service
primarily directed toward incoming air travelers, they also include al incoming travelers at maritime and
land POEs.

Author Information

Audrey Singer

Specialist in Immigration Policy

This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff
to congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of
Congress. Information in a CRS Report should not be relied upon for purposes other than public understanding of
information that has been provided by CRS to Members of Congress in connection with CRS’s institutional role.
CRS Reports, as a work of the United States Government, are not subject to copyright protection in the United
States. Any CRS Report may be reproduced and distributed in its entirety without permission from CRS. However,
as a CRS Report may include copyrighted images or material from a third party, you may need to obtain the
permission of the copyright holder if you wish to copy or otherwise use copyrighted material.