EXCLUSIVE-U.S. weighs restrictions at border with Mexico over coronavirus threat

WASHINGTON, Feb 29 (Reuters) - The Trump administration is considering imposing entry restrictions at the U.S.-Mexico border to control the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, according to two U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials.

Mexico’s government said on Friday it had detected three cases of coronavirus infection in three men who had all recently traveled to Italy, making the country the second in Latin America to register the fast-spreading virus.

The concern over containing the virus at the southern U.S. border comes as the Trump administration also weighs possible restrictions on the entry of travelers from South Korea, Italy and Japan.

The White House on Friday ordered the DHS to draft a range of options to respond to outbreaks in those countries, according to one of the officials and a third DHS official, all of whom requested anonymity to discuss the deliberations.

Trump, a Republican seeking re-election on Nov. 3, has been criticized by Democrats over his administration’s response to the outbreak. The president wrote on Twitter on Saturday that he would hold a 1:30 p.m. EST (1830 GMT) press conference to discuss the latest coronavirus developments.

U.S. public health officials said on Friday that they had identified four “presumptive” coronavirus cases believed to have emerged from community transmission of the infection, signaling a turning point in efforts to contain the disease in the United States.

The Trump administration also said on Friday that the United States would invoke a federal defense law to boost production of masks, gloves, gowns and other items.

A group of 11 Republican House lawmakers led by Texas Representative Chip Roy sent a letter on Friday to top Trump administration officials that pressed for details on the plan to contain the coronavirus at the border with Mexico.

“Given the porous nature of our border, and the continued lack of operational control due to the influence of dangerous cartels, it is foreseeable, indeed predictable, that any outbreak in Central America or Mexico could cause a rush to our border,” the lawmakers said. “The non-secure southern border is a liability and should be seen as such in any plan for preparedness response.”

A group of three Republican senators led by Arizona Senator Martha McSally sent a similar letter on Friday to Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Trump threatened to close the border with Mexico last year over what he characterized at the time as a lack of effort by the Mexican government to stop the northward flow of migrants, but ultimately never took action.

Speaking at a rally in South Carolina on Friday, Trump said that “border security is also health security,” but did not mention any planned actions. Earlier in the day, he said the United States will decide “very soon” about whether to bar entry to travelers from countries other than China where community transmission has emerged.

Members of a U.S. government task force on the coronavirus were scheduled to meet on Saturday morning to discuss the response, an administration official told Reuters on Friday.

Possible restrictions on travelers coming to the United States from Italy could be complicated by that country’s participation in Europe’s Schengen agreement, which allows travelers and goods to cross frontiers without checks, according to the DHS officials.

U.S. airlines announced drastic cuts this week to their flight schedules to South Korea.

The discussions over possible border restrictions remain in the preliminary phase, but the DHS has considered increased screening of people from certain countries based on that country’s medical capacity and volume of travelers to the United States, according to one of the officials.

“The issue of it in our hemisphere is something we are exploring,” said one of the officials. “We are all a little worried now that Mexico has its first cases.”

The White House and DHS did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Mexican foreign ministry official said on Friday that the countries had not discussed possible border restrictions.

During a DHS senior leadership meeting and call on Friday, concerns were raised about a possible influx of migrants to the United States due to a U.S. court ruling on Friday that blocked a Trump administration program that forced non-Mexican migrants to wait in Mexico pending the outcome of their U.S. court hearings, according to two DHS officials in attendance.

“You already have a lot of sick people that are in these camps,” said one of the officials.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which blocked the program, agreed on Friday night to pause its ruling to allow the Trump administration to ask the Supreme Court to take up the dispute. (Reporting by Ted Hesson; Additional reporting by David Shepardson in Washington, Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City; Editing by Daniel Wallis)