As many of our readers are aware, the novel coronavirus1 outbreak in China is a major public health concern. At the time of publishing this blog post, the U.S. has not restricted travel for visitors who may be coming from Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, the now-quarantined city that is the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak. However, travelers originating in China may face certain issues upon arrival to the U.S. if coming from virus-stricken areas.
First, there is a growing number of regional travel bans against travelers from Wuhan and Hubei province. Even though Wuhan and surrounding cities were effectively quarantined on Jan. 23, 2020, we now know that at least five million people were able to leave Wuhan before the lockdown was put in place. As a result, the virus has appeared in confirmed cases in at least 13 other countries; in the United States alone there are five confirmed coronavirus victims who traveled from or through Wuhan. In the attempt by countries and municipalities to curb the spread of the virus, entry restrictions to Chinese travelers may begin to be issued and will likely increase in number and scope. Hong Kong is already severely limiting travel from mainland China, including suspending high-speed and other train services, a 50% reduction in the number of flights and a ban on tourism visas for many Chinese travelers. Other countries may set up such additional restrictions.
Second, coronavirus screenings are being set up in airports around the globe. And all major travel hubs are preparing public health response plans for potential local outbreaks of the virus. Travelers from China entering the United States can expect to be screened with all other travelers for symptoms of the virus. Travelers from China should divulge any travel to Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei Province, and also any contact or exposure to individuals who came from those areas.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers are working with the CDC at major airports and border points of entry to implement health screenings for all travelers from China. Starting Jan. 17, 2020, travelers from Wuhan to the United States now undergo entry screening for symptoms associated with 2019-nCoV at the three U.S. airports that receive most of the travelers from Wuhan, China: San Francisco (SFO), New York (JFK), and Los Angeles (LAX) airports. Screenings have now expanded to 20 airports.2 CBP Officers have been made aware of the guidelines provided by CDC to look for symptoms that people may display whether they are entering through airports or through the border. Anyone suspected of showing symptoms of the virus will likely be quarantined and made to undergo medical screenings and tests to confirm the coronavirus.
Third, U.S. government officials are warning against unnecessary travel to China. A recent U.S. Department of State (DOS) travel advisory warns against travel to China because of the virus. The CDC has issued a Level 3 Warning to avoid all nonessential travel to China, and a Level 4 Warning not to travel to Hubei province specifically. Large U.S. corporations with significant exposure in China are suspending operations and warning employees not to travel to China unless absolutely necessary.
Fourth, travelers requiring visas to enter the United States will see reduced staffing levels and decreased operations at U.S. embassies and consulates in China, which will likely impact their ability to travel to the United States. For example, the U.S. Consulate General Hong Kong and Macau will be operating at reduced staffing levels for Jan. 29-31 specifically due to the coronavirus, and other similar actions may be taken by other embassies. Please see our blog post discussing the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on U.S. visa interviews in China.
CBP officers are empowered to question applicants for admission into the United States, whether they are noncitizens or lawful permanent residents, and examine their documents to determine if they are admissible. Inspection of the applicant for purposes of admission into the United States includes medical as well as immigration inspections. The Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) Section 212(a)(1)(A) states that any alien “determined (in accordance with regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to have a communicable disease of public health significance” is inadmissible in the U.S., though the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not added the coronavirus to the medical exclusion grounds at the time of this blog’s publication.
Lastly, travelers from China should also know that CBP officers performing inspections at airports and border crossing posts are prohibited from engaging in racial profiling and may not use race or ethnicity when screening applicants for admission unless there is a compelling governmental interest and it is narrowly tailored to that interest. In plain terms, this means CBP officers may not specifically target Chinese citizens or nationals for additional, unrelated interrogation techniques or examinations. Individuals should seek out counsel in the event they undergo any racial profiling or similar treatment upon entry to the United States.
We will regularly update our blog with additional reports on the impact of the virus on U.S. immigration.
2 Travelers from areas affected by the virus will be screened at airports in these locations: Anchorage; Atlanta; Boston; Chicago; Dallas/Fort Worth; Detroit; El Paso; Houston; Los Angeles; Miami; Minneapolis-St. Paul; New York; Newark; Philadelphia; San Diego; San Francisco; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Seattle-Tacoma; and Washington/Dulles.