A federal judge on Wednesday blocked the Trump administration from turning back unaccompanied children at the border under a controversial policy that gave federal agents unprecedented powers to close off access during the coronavirus pandemic.
Before the pandemic, unaccompanied children were sent to government-run shelters as they attempted to pursue their asylum cases. The Trump administration has argued that the current policy is necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. Critics said the government was using public health orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as an excuse to violate federal laws that govern the processing of unaccompanied minors at the border.
BuzzFeed News previously reported that the Department of Homeland Security has expelled unaccompanied immigrant children from the US border more than 13,000 times since March.
Judge Emmet Sullivan issued a preliminary injunction on Wednesday, blocking border officials from turning away unaccompanied children.
“Today’s ruling is a critical step in halting the Trump administration’s unprecedented and illegal attempt to expel children under the thin guise of public health. The administration’s order has already allowed for the rapid expulsion of more than 13,000 children in need of protection, who were legally entitled to apply for asylum,” said Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union leading the case.
Before the pandemic, unaccompanied children picked up by Border Patrol agents would be sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they would be housed in shelters as they officially started applying for asylum and waited to be reunited with family members in the US.
The ORR referral process was created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which was signed by then-president George W. Bush in 2008. Under the law, Customs and Border Protection officials are generally required to refer the children within 72 hours to the US refugee agency.
But those referrals dropped precipitously after the CDC's coronavirus order. Instead, unaccompanied children at the border are turned back immediately to Mexico or held in CBP facilities until a flight can get them out of the country.
In late June, US District Judge Carl Nichols, who was appointed by President Donald Trump, blocked the deportation of a 16-year-old Honduran boy under the CDC's order. While the ruling did not void the policy altogether, it was seen as a blow to the administration. Since then, the government has said it was no longer seeking to use the CDC's order to remove the boy from the country.