In reaction to the COVID-19 crisis, President Trump signed a presidential proclamation ordering a ban on nearly all new immigrant visas for new prospective permanent residents of the United States last week. The latest ban largely duplicated the existing worldwide suspension of non‐emergency visas by the State Department. It followed “bans” on entry from China, Iran, Europe (Schengen), Ireland, and Britain.
President Trump stated at the time that the ban on travel from China “pretty much shut it down coming in from China.” After the Iran ban, he said that “We closed the border, as you know, very, very early to the troubled areas and that saved a lot of lives.” On March 4, he said, “We’re talking about very small numbers in this — in our country, very, very small, because of what we did with the borders.” On April 3, 2020, he also said he “cut off Europe very early.”
But new data that the Cato Institute received from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) on daily U.S. international air admissions tell a different story. The new numbers show that as of April 7, nearly 10.7 million entries at U.S. airports originated from countries with confirmed COVID-19 cases. The government waited on average 18 days after a country had confirmed cases to impose any restrictions. For 26 countries, it waited a month or more, including three times two months or more.
The “bans” exempted U.S. citizens and noncitizens who are legal permanent residents or immediate family members of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents.
Figure 1 shows the number of daily U.S. international air arrivals from countries with or without confirmed cases of COVID-19 from October 1, 2019 to April 7, 2020 (the last day in the CBP dataset). The data reveal that the United States allowed an average of 152,608 daily airport entries from countries with confirmed cases of COVID-19 throughout the months of February and March, peaking March 7 with 253,239.
Figure 2 shows the number of daily U.S. international airport admissions from countries with confirmed cases by the citizenship status of the passengers. Of the 10.7 million entries from affected countries, 6 million—56 percent—were made by noncitizens. Noncitizens include current legal permanent residents of the United States, new prospective permanent residents (immigrant visa holders), temporary workers, students, tourists, and other visitors.
China reported the virus to the World Health Organization on December 31, and the United States waited to enact its China “ban” until February 2 at 5pm—nearly 34 days. From December 31 to February 2, 436,594 entries occurred on direct flights from China. This included 6,155 entries directly from the Wuhan province where the outbreak was concentrated. The earliest known entry of a person infected with COVID-19 entered the United States on January 13 from Wuhan. Following restrictions through April 7, 42,642 more passengers entered on direct flights from China, including 26,533 noncitizens.
The next ban targeted travel from Iran on March 2, but Iranians already faced a travel “ban” based on purported terrorism concerns and no direct flights came from Iran, so it’s not possible to view travel from Iran directly in the CBP data.
The president then expanded these entry bans to include Europe’s Schengen Area (mostly Western Europe and Iceland) on March 14 (effective date). The first full day where Europe had a confirmed case of COVID-19 was January 25 in France (confirmation occurred on January 24). The president waited 49 days to restrict travel. From January 25 to March 13, U.S. airports saw 1.5 million entries from Europe—55 percent by noncitizens (Figure 4). Studies have shown most cases in New York came from Europe. Following restrictions, 113,137 air entries came from Schengen, including 16,143 by noncitizens.
On March 17, the president expanded the Schengen ban to include Britain and Ireland. The first case in Great Britain was confirmed on January 31, and the first case in Ireland on March 1. The president waited 46 and 16 days, respectively, to restrict travel. From January 31 to March 16, 1.1 million entries occurred from Ireland or Britain while the country had confirmed COVID-19 cases—59 percent by noncitizens (Figure 5). Following restrictions, 70,928 entries occurred, including 12,821 by noncitizens.
The last restriction was the worldwide suspension of new non‐emergency visas by the State Department effective March 20. This restriction only indirectly prevents travel because noncitizens from most countries cannot fly without obtaining a visa first. However, unlike an entry ban, anyone with a preexisting visa from these countries could still travel as well as anyone who doesn’t need a visa to travel: legal permanent residents or tourists and business travelers from Visa Waiver Program countries.
Table 1 shows the dates of first COVID-19 case and first restriction dates for every country in the world which originated direct flights to the United States during fiscal year 2020, showing that for the average country, the president waited 18 days to restrict travel from most countries in the world. This allowed 10.7 million entries from countries with COVID-19 cases, including 6 million by noncitizens. Even after restrictions took effect, 861,362 people entered at U.S. airports.
The United States restricted travel far too late to have meaningfully affected the growth of the COVID-19 outbreak. Given the millions of arrivals from affected countries, it was inevitable that the virus would quickly spread throughout the country. Even after the restrictions, nearly a million people entered the country by air. The epidemiological research clearly shows that restrictions of this level have very small effects or no effects on the progression of a pandemic. The president was wrong to rely on them so heavily.