A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Trump administration to stop deporting minor immigrants on the grounds that they are a coronavirus threat. The government has already expelled nearly 9,000 children who crossed the border alone, seeking protection, citing a public health order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Since March, immigration agents have been ejecting nearly everyone — children and adults — who shows up at the U.S. border asking for asylum. The government had insisted that it had to turn youngsters back to prevent the possible infection of border agents, youth shelter workers and other immigrants in custody.
But federal Judge Emmet Sullivan issued a preliminary injunction in Washington, telling immigration agents to stop the rapid expulsions of unaccompanied children. U.S. Customs and Border Protection had been housing the children temporarily in border hotels before they could be deported, but another federal judge's order told them to stop that practice.
Immigrant advocates reacted with relief to Wednesday's order.
"Like so many other Trump administration policies, it was gratuitously cruel and unlawful," said Lee Gelernt, a senior American Civil Liberties Union attorney. He argued the class-action lawsuit in August, maintaining the government cannot house migrant children in unlicensed facilities and remove them from the country without hearing their asylum claims.
Another advocate, Wendy Young of Kids in Need of Defense, said the Trump administration "policy is counter to our nation's longstanding commitment to protecting refugees, including unaccompanied kids on the move, and the court rightly enjoined it."
"Today's ruling affirms the Trump administration cannot use the pandemic as a pretext to flout its legal obligations to children fleeing persecution," said Jamie Crook of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies, who also represents the class of children.
The Trump administration's border expulsion policy rested on a rarely used public health law, known as Title 42. Sullivan ruled that the 1944 statute allows the government to block the entrance of noncitizens who carry diseases, but it does not allow expulsions.
"Expelling persons, as a matter of ordinary language, is entirely different from interrupting, intercepting, or halting the process of introduction," the judge wrote in his opinion.
In September, a U.S. magistrate judge said the government had misinterpreted the 76-year-old statute and assumed "breathtakingly broad" powers. CBP agents have used the CDC order to send back more than 200,000 people crossing the northern and southern borders since March.
The Justice Department had argued that the courts were impinging on the federal government's power to protect the American public from COVID-19.
The Associated Press has reported that Vice President Pence pressured the CDC to use its emergency powers to shut the border, overruling a CDC official who refused to comply because there was no valid public health reason.
Neither the Justice Department nor CBP had a comment on the judge's ruling.