WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER ON-BACKGROUND TELECONFERENCE BRIEFING WITH A SENIOR OFFICIAL FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
TOPIC: MEDIA CALL WITH DHS ON PREVENTING TRAVEL SPREAD OF CORONAVIRUS
MONDAY, MARCH 23, 2020, 4:00 DST
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C.
MODERATOR: Okay, I would like to welcome everyone to the Foreign Press Center’s Teleconference Briefing on Preventing the Travel Spread of the Coronavirus. First, I would like to ask all of you on the line to please mute your phones. This is an open conference line, not a moderated line, and therefore we can all hear anything you say or anything in the background. So that we can all hear our speaker, please mute your phone.
The ground rules are [Senior DHS Official] is on background, and I would like to introduce our briefer, [Senior DHS Official]. DHS leads the unified national effort to secure America, coordinating 28 components with responsibilities ranging from prevention and protection to response and recovery. [Senior DHS Official] serves as a spokesman for the department and advocates for the policies that the Trump administration has implemented in the public arena as well as on Capitol Hill.
Just as a reminder, again, this call is on background and the attribution will be “a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security.” Once more, a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security. I will turn it over to [Senior DHS Official] for his opening statement, and then I will open it up for question and answer. Please wait for me to come back on the phone, and please keep your phones muted until I begin the question-and-answer portion. Thank you.
[Senior DHS Official].
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Thank you, Cheryl, and I want to thank the Department of State for putting on this phone call so we can explain to many of you in different parts of the world what we’re doing in the United States to secure the United States and therefore hopefully help our neighbors and friends as well by reducing international travel and what travel restrictions we’ve put in place.
So just a quick history. Back at the end of January, President Trump ordered that we close down international travel from China as the epicenter of the pandemic at that time, and so we very quickly implemented that presidential order. Later on Iran was added to the list of travel restriction countries, and then most recently what’s known as the Schengen zone in Europe, and then Ireland and the United Kingdom were also added, again more recently.
What it means to be on that list is that U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents in the United States can fly home to the United States, but foreign nationals cannot fly from those locations to the United States any longer. They are barred from doing so. They cannot get on the planes anymore. And as you might expect, airline traffic has dramatically dropped on those routes, as it has in much of the world.
This past week, weekend really, starting Friday at midnight, the United States, Canada, and Mexico by agreement all reduced traffic at our mutual borders between Canada and the United States and between the United States and Mexico to only essential traffic, that being primarily cargo and economic traffic, people traveling to work can cross those borders, and necessary cross-border trips like emergency medical care. There are remote parts of the U.S.-Canadian border where Americans actually have to pass through Canada to get to the rest of the United States, where remote communities might have only one place to go to get – to go food shopping and it might be on the other side of the international border. All those sorts of exceptions are allowed for by the agreements between the three countries.
Not surprisingly, since that went into effect Friday night at midnight, we have seen traffic on the northern border drop by 75 percent approximately and on the southern border by almost two-thirds. That is obviously a very dramatic change in the exchange of people between our three countries as we’re used to having some of the busiest borders in the world if not the busiest borders in the world, and Canada and Mexico last year were America’s two largest trading partners as well. Again, the economic traffic – cargo flows, people going to work across the border – has continued and it’s continued at the same levels that we saw before taking these steps to try to limit the expansion of the virus and our mutual exposure to it.
This is sort of the nations’ version of people staying home to avoid contact and working and telecommuting instead of going to office buildings and so forth. It’s the same idea the President has since January been instructing all of us in the Government of the United States to be aggressive in identifying opportunities to keep the virus from spreading and then taking the action necessary to do exactly that. And we are seeing the benefits of that already. We saw it immediately from the first travel restrictions placed on China, and frankly we wish everybody had placed similar restrictions as it might have slowed the spread to other parts of the world, like northern Italy, that have become such hotbeds for the rest of us as well.
So that is where we stand. We have committed to having these restrictions in place for a limited time, but that limitation is hard to see the end of at the moment. It is when the spread of the virus no longer poses a threat to the United States or to our neighbors, and put differently, when the world starts returning to normal – that will be part of that return to normal, will be the elimination of those travel restrictions.
I know many of you ask: Is X country or Y country being considered to be added to the travel restrictions? The answer, without having to name countries, is yes. Every day the President’s task force, led by the Vice President, reviews the case data all over the world. And that is done with the idea of potentially changing our restrictions, adding more restrictions to the travel restrictions already in place. Obviously, all of this is being done to try and keep cases from coming in the United States. When American citizens and legal permanent residents come back, they come back from these areas that have been identified as particular hot zones of cases, and they’re asked to quarantine themselves in their own homes for two weeks.
So we take steps internally just as we take outward-facing steps to bar the virus from getting in. We don’t want to block our citizens from coming home. And one of the challenges we’re facing right now is we have citizens all over the world who want to come home, and other countries have put in place travel restrictions of their own that are making that difficult to accomplish. So our State Department is working through that challenge all over the globe, and slowly but surely working with our allies we hope to help them get their folks home who want to get home as well.
Those are the kind of steps we’re taking here at the Department of Homeland Security in partnership with our friends at the Department of State, and across the federal government here in the United States, to try to keep Americans safe – using travel restrictions, and as I said, always considering how they should be changed, perhaps expanded at the moment, to address a potential threat from spreads of the virus.
With that, [Moderator], I’m happy to take questions. And if we can be careful about the open lines, some people still haven’t muted their lines. I can hear, and – but if we could be sure to speak one at a time, that would – I know [Moderator] would appreciate it, and so would I. It would make it a lot easier for me to answer questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, [Senior Department of Homeland Security Official]. Yes, this is [Moderator], I’m the moderator. Please keep your phones muted unless I call on you. If you are not on a cell phone and cannot mute the phone, please cover the receiver so that you don’t interrupt the call. I will begin calling on some people who submitted questions in advance.
Is Sonia from Bulgaria on the line?
QUESTION: Yes, I’m on line. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: My question was about future restrictions with countries like Bulgaria, Romania, et cetera, which are European countries but not in the Schengen zone. Are they considered to be included in the travel ban of the United States?
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Sonia, thank you for your question. And they are not considered to be included in the current travel ban, but I would reiterate my remarks earlier: We do keep an eye on not only the policies that each country like Bulgaria or Romania might implement itself, but also what is their case experience. Are they experiencing cases in their country? Are they based on community spread, or are they other – or are they travel from other areas? Obviously, we appreciate the fact that you all – and Bulgaria, for instance – have maintained your own borders, unlike the Schengen zone which left us – it was very difficult to deal just with Italy when people can travel anywhere without even having to use their passports, so we can’t identify that in our travel systems before they might fly to the United States. So I would also note that Germany, France, and Spain were also seeing significant acceleration in their cases at the time when the President decided to ban foreign travel from the Schengen zone – again, travel by those other than American citizens and legal permanent residents and their families.
So we are looking at expansion to other countries. Obviously, at the moment Bulgaria is not in the Schengen zone, so not covered by the current travel restrictions per se, but I would – the practical reality is a lot of flights are going away, and you can’t fly through the Schengen zone, you can’t land in London and then come to the United States, you have to actually go around. And I know some airlines are making accommodations for that, but those numbers that we’re seeing are relatively small compared to what I’ll call pre-virus traffic. But thank you very much for your question. I hope that’s helpful.
QUESTION: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: (Inaudible) Susana (inaudible) from EFE News (inaudible)?
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, that was too blurred.
MODERATOR: Is Susana from EFE on the line?
MODERATOR: Hi. Susana, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. I would like to ask if the U.S. is considering imposing a travel ban from Latin American countries similar to the one imposed to European countries? Thank you.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Yes, ma’am. So the answer on a country-by-country basis is yes. As I said with respect to the Bulgaria and Romania question, it is also applicable for Latin America. And we see several countries like Brazil and Ecuador, for instance, are having significant case rises happening, lots of case acceleration there, and that’s obviously a concern for us. And we keep an eye on that just as we do Europe or the other parts of the world.
And of course, in our own hemisphere, we also have the issue of immigration, which has been very smoothly handled by Mexico this weekend. I have to say very impressive cooperation there. And we have attempted to commence repatriation flights on a much faster frequency with Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador, Brazil, and so forth with varying degrees of success. It is very important to the United States – and I want to be very clear about this, it is very important to the Government of the United States that we have good cooperation in returning countries’ own citizens to them, whether they be Guatemalans to Guatemala, Ecuadorans to Ecuador, and so forth.
You can expect to see continuing attention to this matter from the U.S. Government in the days ahead, and I can assure you that this kind of cooperation is something that will affect our relations beyond just the presence of the coronavirus. This is a very important subject. And from the American Government’s standpoint, it is hard for us to imagine why nations would not take back their own citizens and do so quickly in a time when we want to minimize travel and traffic. And that’s a universal desire by all governments who are attempting to quell the coronavirus.
So I appreciate your question. The answer is similar to Europe, but of course, we have our own Western Hemisphere issues particularly related to immigration, so I appreciate you giving me the chance to address those. Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. We have India – I’m sorry, Reena Bhardwaj, from Asia News International India on the line.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for taking this call. Question. Now, numerous international flights have been cancelled at the last minute and ports of entries are shut. Travelers are on short-term nonimmigrant visas and are unable to leave the United States. They want to go back home, but they can’t. What relief can the non-immigrants on short-term entry visas expect from the USCIS, and are overstay penalties being waived? That’s one.
And my next question is: A number of H-1B visa holders qualify for teleworking now. However, telework introduces new challenges to the terms of their existing H-1B application terms, things as to which might involve additional legal and USCIS fees. What relief can these H-1B visa holders expect from USCIS?
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: So two questions there, so let’s start with people who face visas coming to an end but an inability to get home. You can of course apply to USCIS, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, for extensions to those visas. And USCIS is taking what I would characterize as a very appropriate view of the circumstances in deciding those. So visas, for instance, where an extension is being requested today and you’re going to a country where the flights have been taken down, can readily be expected to be favorably received by USCIS, whereas say two months ago that would not have been the case. If flights are available and your visa’s coming to an end, you’d have been expected to get on one of those flights and return home.
And so USCIS – short answer – is accounting for the challenges that travel restrictions all over the world, not just in the United States, are placing on individuals’ abilities to sincerely abide by the terms of their visas. So we do understand that and USCIS I think you’ll find to be very accommodating.
Honestly, your H-1B telecommuting question is a really good question that I have not been asked before, and that’s one I would want to check with USCIS before suggesting anything in any particular direction. We do – we are supporting, across the department, steps for safer working environments in light of the coronavirus, so I would be expecting to see that extended to the terms and conditions enforced with respect to H-1B visas. But having not dealt with that specific question before, I’d have to defer to USCIS on that. But again, it’s the same agency making those decisions as I – my previous question, and for those of you who don’t know, I was the [position] of USCIS before I took on the role of the acting deputy secretary for Homeland Security. So I’m very familiar with that work, and I think you can expect to have a very reasonable consideration from USCIS in all of these sort of circumstances that are only caused by the coronavirus.
Thank you for your questions.
MODERATOR: And an important question – do we have Peter Winkler on the line from Switzerland?
QUESTION: Yes, I’m here.
MODERATOR: Go ahead, Peter.
QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. Yeah, my question is a lot of us are actually living in the U.S. under an I visa for journalists, and I was wondering whether there’s any chance for us to maybe go visit our families if people die back home and then come back to work here, or will that strictly (inaudible)?
And a second question, if I may: What will be the criteria to end the travel restrictions as per each country? Thank you.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Sure. So let’s start with the second question and work our way back to – for the broader to the more specific. So the task force has indicated – and the President has sort of given the imprimatur to the notion – that travel restrictions can be expected to stay in place for countries that are not what I’ll call “recovered” from the effects of the virus. We don’t expect it to be gone everywhere and anywhere in the world before travel restrictions would be coming down, but we do expect the cases to be under control and there not to be what amounts to a state of outbreak before travel restrictions would come off. That’s the expectation.
And with respect to where you are –
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Back to you, Peter. So in Switzerland, part of the Schengen zone might – it’s going to be the whole zone, obviously, at one time. So we’re going to want to be seeing cases – case rates of new cases arriving, obviously decelerating rather than their current state of accelerating in the Schengen zone. That’s the most basic consideration. And then, depending country by country, or in this case the Schengen zone, it’ll also be a factor in terms of the level of surveillance, how accurately can the country or countries in question assess how many cases are active at the time, which the health folks would call “surveillance.” And also the state of the health system, is it overwhelmed or is it managing the current state and the projected future state of the coronavirus in that country.
All of those factors go into the calculus by the task force, first of adding a country to the travel restrictions, but those same considerations, just in the negative – the deceleration and then returning capacity of the healthcare system and the commitment to the government to dealing with the virus – all factor into removing the travel restrictions. Now, we haven’t removed travel restrictions from anywhere yet because the virus is still showing a very rapid pace around the world, but that’s something that could be expected.
With respect to your question about coming and going, the answer is no as a general matter. Now, there might be – you gave – you gave an example like returning to deal with a death. There may be rather unique and extreme circumstances where something like a parole might be used, but that’s an extreme rarity and the authority does exist for those special circumstances. However, it is not something that we use regularly, often, or lightly.
So in terms of just getting back and forth, one can go back – for instance, you could fly from the United States to Switzerland to return to your family in Switzerland, but you could not, at that point, turn around and come back to the United States because, as a Swiss national – and I’m presuming that for purposes of this discussion – that the travel restrictions still apply in that direction. So I hope that answers your question, even if it might not have been exactly the answer you were hoping for.
QUESTION: Absolutely, thank you.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Yes, sir.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, [Senior DHS Official]. Let me just remind everyone to please mute your phone. This is an open line, and we can hear background noise. It – do we have Nelson from El Faro in El Salvador on the line?
QUESTION: Yes, I am.
MODERATOR: Hi, Nelson. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much, [Senior DHS Official]. I was just wondering, how are you dealing with deportation flights to Central America? Because also Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras have closed their airports, their international airports. They are only allowing cargo flights. So I was wondering how – are these government making exceptions for the people to return for the – specifically for the deportation flights which you mentioned earlier in the call? Thank you.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Sure. Thank you very much for the question. So yes, some of the countries that we interact with for deportation flights have, as you noted, closed their passenger traffic. And so the repatriation flights, the deportation flights are made one at a time with cooperation, by which I mean they’re pre-arranged by agreement between the United States Government and, for instance, the Government of El Salvador, President , or the Government of Guatemala or Honduras or – and so on, Ecuador, Brazil, and so on.
There are countries that are still – that don’t have travel restrictions where sometimes commercial flights might be used, as that is a practice we have had for some time. But we’re doing less and less of that and doing more charter flights so that everyone – so that we know who everyone on the plane is and we can tell the receiving government who everyone on the plane is, versus, say, a commercial flight where we might escort a number of people back to a country – I’ll pick one, Brazil – but other people on the plane would not be – have any relationship to the government activity going on, and so we couldn’t tell the Government of Brazil who’s on that plane in total. So in the interest of keeping it all cleaner, if you will, that’s how we’ve been operating during this time.
I would also note that when we send back a deportation flight, those folks get medical screenings on the flight line before they leave the United States. So people, for instance, who have a temperature over 104 – 100.4 degrees, 37.5 or 38 degrees Centigrade, do not travel. So we’re doing that checking on our side, and that’s obviously an accommodation to the receiving governments, but I will go back and repeat what I said earlier: It is not an acceptable position to the Government of the United States that any country in the world whose citizens illegally entered our country would not take those citizens back under virtually any circumstances. There’s simply no defense of that position, and we feel very, very strongly about that, and we intend to act accordingly if the needs arise in the future. And you can expect to hear more from us later this week on this subject in the event it’s needed.
But I do appreciate your question, and thank you very much for it.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. Thank you very much. Next we have Magda from News, Poland. Is Magda on?
QUESTION: Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for doing this call. I would like to ask about the flight that – right now operated by some European airlines, a special flight to evacuate Europeans to Europe right now. Do you think that in (inaudible) future, you’d consider to put in any restrictions on those flights?
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: You mean flights that are going to Europe?
QUESTION: No, I mean flights from Europe, just to take European citizens – to bring them home, like empty planes are flying from, let’s say, Warsaw, Poland to Chicago, take European citizens to Poland.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Oh –
MODERATOR: She wrote in her question “evacuations” for –
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: So in the other – so the other direction. So, yes, there is – I’ll give you an example and then I’ll turn it more to the European situation.
So we flew a repatriation flight down to Guatemala yesterday, I believe, and flew back in that plane with American citizens. Normally, those planes fly back empty. And there’s no question that the airlines, frankly, in the example you gave from, say, Poland to Chicago – if that flight can take place to bring, say, American citizens back to the United States from Poland, it is much more likely to keep flying if there are, then, Polish citizens to fly back to Warsaw in your example on the flight back.
I mean, one of the challenges we’re facing, all of us in governments all over the world, is that the traffic level, the passenger level, is not staying high enough for the airlines to afford to carry the flights from place to place. So the traffic between Europe and the United States, for instance, and China and Iran, the countries we have travel restrictions with, has dropped by seven-eighths, 87 percent, just an enormous drop. And so that means there are a lot less flights available for people who want to take them and who qualify to take them, in either direction. And we certainly try in – for the benefit of keeping those flights going, to help the airlines be able to arrange for the plane to be as full as possible in both directions, not just when they bring Americans home one way, but so they can bring Europeans home the other. We are very much trying to make those accommodations. And sometimes they’re by charters, and we have worked with our allies in different parts of the world, particularly when we are dealing with so many cruise liners out and that had to be brought back in.
Other countries – there was a lot of cooperation between a number of different countries, including our European allies, about getting their citizens home in that whole process, and that’s something that the Department of State takes the point on and leads for the United States Government. We appreciate them doing that hard work, and they’ve been doing a good job of it. But you can fully expect those kinds of efforts to continue. They are government-to-government conversations typically taking place for when they’re charter flights, but otherwise, it is a question more of the citizens of each country understanding which flights they’re qualified to get on, what they’re allowed to do. But the more of them we can keep up on the commercial space, the better off, and we certainly have made adjustments to do that.
And I’ll use a China example. So there are no American and United States airlines flying to China any longer, but there are a couple of Chinese airliners that are still flying routes to the U.S. Well, one of them asked permission to fly to LA and then up to San Francisco, so they had essentially two landing points instead of one to make the flight financially feasible. And that was permission that we granted to – because there are advantages of keeping some of these flights open in terms of getting citizens home, whether they be Chinese citizens going back to China in this case, or American citizens coming back to America. I hope that answers your question.
QUESTION: Yeah, but I understand it takes (inaudible) consider any restrictions for those special flights. I mean, (inaudible), for example, from Poland, for Polish people who would like to come – to Poland back, when they arrive now in United States.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: You’re asking about Polish people returning to Poland from the United States?
QUESTION: Yes, because you are talking about the flights and I asked about the special charters organized by some European airlines.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Oh, I see. Yeah, when they’re –
MODERATOR: I believe he addressed – did you address that, [Senior DHS Official]?
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Yeah. When they’re done privately, really the charter just has to follow the travel restriction rules. When we arrange it, it’s done by the Department of State on behalf of the United States Government, and there can be – there’s nothing keeping it from being two-way carriage, like the example I gave in Guatemala. There can be a number of reasons for that.
I’m not aware of that growing to any extent at this point. So far, the organization of repatriation flights for Americans has largely been we identify a need, fly a plane there, bring those folks back. It has not been a two-way arrangement that I am aware of. That could change over time, but that is really the province of the Department of State more than Homeland Security.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: Yes, ma’am.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you. Our next question, which is from Japan, from NHK, do we have – forgive me if I mispronounce your name – Hideki ? Are you on the line, Mr. ?
MODERATOR: Okay. Is there someone else from NHK on the line?
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll take just (inaudible) one more question. Do we have Can from German Press Agency?
MODERATOR: Do we have Alexandra von from Deutsche ?
QUESTION: Will you allow a question from the Middle East?
QUESTION: I’m sorry. I was just called up –
QUESTION: Can I ask a final question?
MODERATOR: Sorry, could I ask you just to speak one at a time? Is Can on the line?
QUESTION: Yes, that’s me, but my question has already been answered. Thank you very much.
MODERATOR: Okay. Do we have Ligia from Radio France International?
MODERATOR: Do we have Domitila from La , Argentina?
QUESTION: Yes, hi. This is she.
MODERATOR: Okay. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for this call. [Senior DHS Official], I was wondering, given the (inaudible) current circumstances, is the task force considering the possibility of closing all major airports in the United States?
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: So it isn’t so much that the task force is considering closing airports in the United States. Answer as a policy matter is no. However, we are cautious of our workforce. For instance, you may have seen news of airport towers in Las Vegas and at Midway Airport in Chicago that, at points, were down for a few hours, and they were down for a few hours because they were identified as having coronavirus-positive employees in them, and so the employees had to be moved out. The tower was shut down, and thus the airport became inoperable.
We have also seen our own workforce for the Transportation Security Agency, TSA – these are the folks who do the security checks before you get on a plane in the United States – have been hit pretty darn hard with their frontline role in securing airports. And if we reach a point where we don’t have enough security personnel at a particular airport, then that airport won’t be able to operate.
So again, there’s not a policy consideration at the moment of shutting down domestic airports; however, we are being very careful on the operational side that if we reach a point where we lack the manpower to safely operate an airport that we would have to be forced by the virus, effectively, to close that airport. That has not happened yet except for periods of a few hours because of tower closures, but that is at least a possibility going forward.
Thank you very much for your question. That’s a very interesting question and a subject we’re watching closely because we care a lot, of course, about our workforce from place to place, airport to airport.
QUESTION: Thank you.
SENIOR DHS OFFICIAL: So thank you all very much for your participation, and I want to thank the Department of State as well for running this call.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MODERATOR: And we will – just to remind you, the ground rules are on background, attributable to a senior official from the Department of Homeland Security. That’s all the time we have for today. Thank you very much. And if you did not get your question answered, please send any follow-up questions to the following email address: firstname.lastname@example.org. –
QUESTION: Can you repeat?
MODERATOR: Yes, I will. – which stands for headquarters – . – for Department of Homeland Security – .gov, as in government.
Our transcript should be ready this evening or by first thing tomorrow morning. I will send it out to all who RSVP’d for the call, and then we’ll send it more widely. I’d like to thank you all for joining, and that concludes our briefing.