A federal court has prevented the Trump administration from further deporting unaccompanied migrant children under a program that allowed immigration officials to unceremoniously expel asylum seekers arriving at the southern border due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
At least 13,000 such children have already been deported under the policy, often with little or no notification of their parents or legal counsel, and even when they have no symptoms of the virus. Others were detained in hotels on the border for extended periods as part of the program.
This is despite the fact that immigration officials are required to transfer migrant children within 72 hours of their arrest to the Refugee Resettlement Office of the Ministry of Health and Human Services, where they will be provided with a lawyer and the opportunity to apply for asylum and other forms of legal protection in the United States.
In a ruling on Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan found that the Trump administration had illegally called the pandemic in an attempt to achieve its long-standing goal of keeping asylum seekers out.
One of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against the policy, a 16-year-old who is only known as P.J.E.S. fled his home country of Guatemala in court after receiving death threats and refusing to join a gang because of his father's political views. He wanted to join his father, who currently lives in the United States and is awaiting deportation proceedings. However, when he arrived at the southern border, he was taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection in McAllen, Texas and subjected to the rapid evacuation program.
Since the ACLU filed its lawsuit against the policy, the government voluntarily took P.J.E.S. from the rapid identification program and sent him to an HHS facility.
The Trump administration began evicting migrants to Mexico in March under Title 42, a section of the Public Health Safety Act that allows the US government to temporarily prevent non-citizens from entering the US "when so is necessary in the interests of public health ".
Trump had previously relied on a number of interlocking measures to make the asylum system virtually inaccessible to the vast majority of people arriving at the border. These included a program that sent tens of thousands of asylum seekers back to Mexico to await their hearings in the U.S. immigration court, as well as agreements with Central American countries that allowed immigration officials to spot migrants who had passed through those countries on their way there to deport the USA.
However, Title 42 expulsions largely replaced these policies as the Trump administration's primary means of keeping migrants out amid the pandemic. The administration has made it effective until the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines that the continued spread of Covid-19 "no longer poses a serious public health threat".
While President-elect Joe Biden has vowed to dismantle most of Trump's policies on the border after he took office, he has left open the option of at least temporarily maintaining the Title 42 program. However, it is not clear that there is a public health rationale to maintain the policy as the level of community transmission is already so high within the US.
Immigrant advocates have argued that the US can continue to safely provide protection to vulnerable immigrants.
"This policy goes against our nation's longstanding commitment to protecting refugees, including unaccompanied children on the move, and the court rightly mandated it," said Wendy Young, president of the Kids in Need of Defense legal aid group, in a statement Wednesday. "The United States is able to identify the protective needs of these children while addressing public health concerns."
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