(CN) – The U.S. will close both its southern and northern borders this weekend as part of the government’s effort to slow the spread of the global coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 10,000 people worldwide.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the closing of the southern border during a press briefing Friday, saying the U.S. and Mexico had reached an agreement to restrict all “nonessential” travel.
“Both our countries know the importance of working together to limit the spread of the virus and to ensure that commerce that supports our economy continues to keep flowing,” Pompeo said.
The move follows an agreement the U.S. reached Wednesday with Canada to close the nation’s northern border to nonessential traffic as well.
Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said during Friday’s briefing that both closures would go into effect Saturday at midnight and would include exceptions that allow people to continue crossing for things like work, school, medical services and business.
“Neither of these agreements with Canada or Mexico applies to lawful trade or commerce,” Wolf said. “Essential commercial activities will not be impacted.”
The Homeland Security Department said in a statement the southern border closure would be in effect for an initial 30 days and could be extended.
The decision to close the southern border comes after a conversation Thursday between Pompeo and Mexico’s Foreign Secretary Marcelo Luis Ebrard Casaubon, during which a State Department spokesperson said the two leaders discussed plans for “uniform North American strategy.”
As the Covid-19 disease continues to surface in new communities across the U.S., the federal government has warned Americans to avoid international travel and for those who are already abroad to return home unless they’re prepared to stay out of the country for an “indefinite” amount of time.
Officials in El Paso, Texas on Thursday had urged the region to prepare for “contingency plans” in the event of a southern border closure and for U.S. and Mexican authorities to cooperate on preventing the spread of the disease.
“Cooperation should include steps to keep supply chains open and safe, facilitate essential travel between both countries, and administer aid to refugees and other migrants, such as those individuals held in detention facilities in the United States and awaiting court dates in Mexico,” Congresswoman Veronica Escobar, El Paso Mayor Dee Margo and other officials said in a joint statement.
“As a resilient binational community, we should all be alert, make contingency plans, and work to minimize the health, economic, and social impacts of COVID-19 in our region,” the officials said.
The new travel restrictions come as the federal government moves forward with plans to quickly remove immigrants who cross the nation’s borders illegally. The Trump administration said this week it would promptly reject asylum seekers and other immigrants who try to gain access to the U.S. outside official ports of entry.
President Trump said Friday the new border controls were aimed at preventing “mass, uncontrolled cross border movement” that could lead to the novel coronavirus spreading among immigrants, Border Patrol agents and the general public.
“Left unchecked, this would cripple our immigration system, overwhelm our healthcare system and severely damage our national security,” he said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”
Immigrant advocates have pushed back on the president’s statements linking the threat of coronavirus to immigration, with some describing the administration’s messaging on the issue as xenophobic.
“The number of people arriving at the southern border right now is basically in line with 2015, 2016, and 2018,” Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an advocate with the American Immigration Council, said on Twitter. “It’s by no means ‘mass uncontrolled’ movement. Nothing of the sort.”