The American Civil Liberties Union, along with two other immigrant advocacy organizations, filed the first lawsuit Tuesday against stringent border restrictions related to coronavirus that largely bar migrants from entering the United States.
In March, as coronavirus swept across the country, the Trump administration invoked a public health law, citing the coronavirus, that allowed for the swift removal of migrants, including children, apprehended at the border – a move that raised concerns among officials involved in compiling data who believed it to be driven by political motivations. The order has since been extended indefinitely.
The ACLU, Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Oxfam America are now challenging that order.
“This lawsuit will raise for the first time whether the government can close down the border to children seeking protection based on the government assertion that it’s necessary for public health, without providing any of the protections Congress has afforded children and those seeking protection,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the ACLU.
The plaintiff is a 16-year-old boy from Honduras who was seeking refuge in the United States.
According to the lawsuit, the boy, who’s identified by his initials, was fleeing “severe persecution” in Honduras and was apprehended by US Customs and Border Protection last week. He’s in CBP custody in the El Paso, Texas, area. Since the lawsuit was filed, a federal judge has temporarily blocked the boy’s removal from the US.
Unaccompanied migrant children have been afforded certain protections under US law, but new border measures have undercut those protections, attorneys argue in the complaint. In this case, those measures have given way to the boy staying in immigration custody, with the threat of being swiftly removed back to his home country, instead of being transferred to a children’s facility to be reunited with his father in the US.
“The Administration’s use of Title 42 is a transparent end-run around Congress’s considered decision to provide protection to children and others fleeing danger even where communicable disease is a concern – and to address that concern through the use of testing and quarantines, not deportations,” the lawsuit, citing the law invoked by the administration, reads.
The lawsuit names Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and senior officials within the department, as well as Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, among other administration officials. It was filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
The lawsuit seeks to provide relief to the boy and challenge the public health order allowing for the quick expulsion of unaccompanied children.
A similar lawsuit was filed Tuesday by the same groups, in addition to the Texas Civil Rights Project, concerning a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador. The girl fled her home country after being pursued by Salvadoran gangs who previously targeted her mother, a former police officer, for refusing to cooperate with them. In April 2020, the girl sought to join her mother in the United States, where she’s been granted legal protection and lives lawfully.
The lawsuit alleges that when the girl arrived at the US-Mexico border, she informed officials of her situation but officials didn’t contact her mother or process her to be transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is charged with the care of unaccompanied children. Instead, they sent her back to El Salvador under the new border restrictions.
“Through these expulsions, (the administration has) essentially, absolutely closed the door to asylum. They are getting rid of individuals, many of them asylum seekers who are here fleeing something and they have told immigration officials, ‘I am afraid,’” Karla Vargas, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project who’s among those representing the family, told CNN.
Gelernt echoed those concerns: “We believe the administration is trying to accomplish through the backdoor what they’ve been seeking to do for the last 3.5 years – to use the pandemic as a smokescreen to close the southern border to asylum seekers and children,” Gelernt said.
Public health experts have also slammed the Trump administration’s use of the public health law in question, arguing in a May letter to the Department of Health and Human Services that there’s “no public health rationale for denying admission to individuals based on legal status.”
More than two dozen health experts at leading public health schools, medical schools and hospitals raised concerns about the basis of those restrictions, saying “the nation’s public health laws should not be used as a pretext for overriding humanitarian laws and treaties that provide life-saving protections to refugees seeking asylum and unaccompanied children.”
Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Mark Morgan has repeatedly said that the restrictions are directly related to the public health risk and not immigration enforcement.
Morgan has suggested that the restrictions would continue to stay in place, even as the United States gradually reopens.
This story has been updated with additional developments.