U.S. will add 500 troops at Mexico border during coronavirus pandemic -officials

WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) - The Pentagon will send roughly 500 troops to the U.S.-Mexico border to assist that department’s efforts to deal with the new coronavirus, two U.S. officials told Reuters.

The sources said the Pentagon approved a request by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

The United States already maintains an average of 5,000 troops at the southwest border to support Border Patrol by performing non-law enforcement duties. The latest deployment will bolster those ranks as border agents grapple with possible exposure to COVID-19, the disease cause by the virus.

DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move came as the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump shelved a plan to send troops to the border with Canada, U.S. officials told Reuters.

Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland slammed the proposal last week, calling it “an entirely unnecessary step” that would damage bilateral relations between the two nations, which have long maintained an undefended border.[USN: L1N2BJ1Q6]

The Trump administration has stepped up its response to the coronavirus outbreak this month as infections have spread across the country. For the first time on Tuesday, the United States recorded nearly 700 new deaths in a single day. The country now has a total of over 3,700 deaths and over 182,000 cases.

The United States closed its northern and southern borders to tourist and recreational travel to limit the spread of the new coronavirus on March 20. At the same time, the Trump administration began to use a health-focused statute to swiftly return migrants caught trying to cross U.S. borders illegally.

The rapid removals also apply to unaccompanied minors from Central America with exceptions on a case-by-case, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said on Monday. The minors previously had been transferred into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services in accordance with a federal law to protect victims of human trafficking.

Guatemalan authorities said on Monday that a group of migrants deported from the United States were being held in a temporary shelter at the country’s main airport after three children aboard the flight developed fevers, a key COVID-19 symptom. (Reporting by Ted Hesson; Idrees Ali and Jonathan Landay in Washington; Editing by David Gregorio)