Immigration advocates have filed a pair of lawsuits in federal court challenging an order that has allowed the Trump administration to virtually end asylum at the U.S. border amid the pandemic.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy organizations filed one lawsuit late Tuesday on behalf of a 16-year-old Honduran boy who crossed the U.S. border alone and may be sent back without being offered the standard process for requesting humanitarian protection.
The groups filed another lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador who has gone hiding after being removed from the United States, where her mother previously obtained asylum. Both lawsuits were filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
“This isn’t some ivory tower legal battle,” Karla M. Vargas, senior attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement regarding the second lawsuit. “In our name, the government used a dog to chase a girl into the river and never even bothered to check if she had a mother.”
The lawsuits challenge a sweeping order issued March 20 by the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention that cites the COVID-19 pandemic as a reason for turning back migrant children and adults who would otherwise have been allowed, by law, to stay and demonstrate their eligibility for protection. Since the order was implemented, more than 20,000 migrants have been “expelled,” according to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website. Around 1,000 unaccompanied children were sent back under this order in March and April, CBP said last month.
“This is the most extreme of the Trump administration’s anti-children anti-asylum policies,” Lee Gelernt, the deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, said in an interview. “Given the public outcry against the Trump administration’s separation of children at the border, one would have assumed that the administration would not have continued to terrorize children fleeing persecution, but that’s what the order does.”
When President Donald Trump originally announced the CDC order, he said it would help prevent a “viral spread at our borders." He invoked a World War II-era regulation that allows the administration to deny “the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places” if they are deemed likely to introduce communicable illnesses.
According to health researchers tracking the pandemic, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the countries with the largest source of of migrants at the U.S. southern border — have reported far fewer cases of COVID-19 than the United States.
In May, the CDC order was extended indefinitely. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in a statement at the time that the order would remain in place until the CDC “determines the serious danger from COVID-19 has ceased.”
The two lawsuits argue that the provision of the 1944 public health law invoked by the president has never been used to the current extreme. Nor do they trump U.S. immigration laws that forbid asylum-seeking adults and children from being sent back to harm and lay out a process by which they can make their case before an immigration court.
“The administration is doing an end run around the laws Congress has passed,” Gelernt said.
The plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Tuesday is a 16-year-old boy who witnessed a gang murder in Honduras and subsequently faced death threats from perpetrators, according to court documents. The teen crossed the border on June 4, hoping to seek refuge and join his father in the United States.
The lawsuit said the child should have been labeled as an “unaccompanied alien minor” and handed over to the administration’s refugee resettlement office within 72 hours, under national protocols signed into law by former President George W. Bush. The boy would have then been released to the closest eligible family member and allowed to make his claim for protection in court.
Under the CDC order, he has spent the past five days at a border facility waiting to be flown back to Honduras. His deportation has been temporarily halted by the federal court.
In the other case, the mother of the teen girl was a police officer in El Salvador who won protection in the United States. The lawsuit said the girl, who was also threatened by gangs in her home country, sought to join her mother, who was never contacted by border officials once she crossed. The lawsuit asks the court to allow the girl to return to the U.S. and pursue a claim in court.
CBP spokesman Nathan Peeters said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. “However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations," he said via email.