The American Civil Liberties Union and other organizations filed a lawsuit in federal court on Wednesday challenging a controversial Trump administration policy that has turned back thousands of immigrants at the southern border, including children apprehended alone and asylum-seekers.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Washington, DC, was filed on behalf of a 16-year-old Honduran boy who fled to the US to seek protection from persecution in his home country. The teen, who is seeking to stop his imminent deportation, is the first to challenge an unprecedented policy that has all but shut down asylum at the southern border.
The ACLU also filed a second lawsuit challenging the policy on behalf of a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador who has already been deported under the new measures after coming to the US in April. She had fled El Salvador because she was targeted by gangs that had previously threatened her mother, a former police officer, the complaint states.
“During her apprehension, she fell into the Rio Grande River because she was trying to get away from CBP patrol dogs. CBP sent her to the hospital,” the suit, which was also filed in federal court in Washington, DC, states.
The girl was later deported on April 27.
Meanwhile, the threat of persecution and torture to the girl "is imminent and real," her lawyers wrote.
"El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world and in particular gender-motivated killings of women and girls,” they added.
Administration officials have said they are following public health orders designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the US, but advocates like the ACLU say they are using the health orders to violate federal laws that govern the processing of unaccompanied minors.
Department of Homeland Security officials have turned around thousands of immigrants, including children, at the southern border by using a March order issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that bars the entry of those who cross into the country without authorization.
Previously, unaccompanied children from Central America picked up by Border Patrol agents would be sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), where they would be housed in shelters across the country as they began officially applying for asylum and waited to be reunited with family members in the US.
But those referrals have dipped since the issuance of the CDC order and the agency received just 58 children for the entire month of April — lower than the average number of referrals in a single day in the period prior to the order. Instead, unaccompanied children at the border are turned back and deported by Department of Homeland Security officials under the CDC order.
“The Administration’s use of [the CDC order] 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 deportation,” read the ACLU’s lawsuit.
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, US Customs and Border Protection officials are generally required to refer the children within 72 hours to the US refugee agency.
The 16-year-old Honduran boy facing expulsion has been in CBP custody since June 4, according to the lawsuit. He fled the Central American country, attorneys said, after witnessing a murder and gang members threatened him afterward. His father lives in the US.
Advocates said the use of the CDC order is “extreme in seeking to eliminate statutory protections for vulnerable non-citizens and children. And it is not only a ban on entry, but provides for summary expulsion for those who entered the country.”
They also note in the lawsuit that the US is already dealing with an outbreak of the disease.
“Despite Defendants’ claimed fear of ‘introducing’ infected individuals into the country, the United States is experiencing an outbreak of COVID-19 that is substantially more serious than most of its neighbors,” the lawsuit read. “This country has the highest COVID-19 death toll and one of the highest infection rates in the entire world. As of June 7, 2020, the United States had over 1.94 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, a rate of 5.91 people per thousand.”
The ACLU is requesting the order be declared unlawful as it applied to the 16-year-old child and to stop them from using it against him.
The deportation has temporarily been put on hold for 24 hours after advocates and the government came to an agreement.