Judge says border agents can't use COVID-19 order to expel migrant kids

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A federal judge on Wednesday ordered border authorities to stop expelling migrant children without letting them seek humanitarian refuge, dealing a severe blow to a pandemic-era policy the Trump administration has used to curtail legal protections for minors in U.S. immigration custody.

In a two-page order, Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said unaccompanied migrant children who are taken into custody by border officials must be afforded the safeguards Congress established for them and placed in shelters overseen by the government during their immigration proceedings.

“This cruel and unlawful policy, like so many others from the Trump administration, was putting thousands of children in grave danger,” Lee Gelernt, the top American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in the case, told CBS News. “Not surprisingly, all three federal judges who have looked at it have concluded it should be halted.”

Since mid-March, U.S. officials at both land borders have been summarily expelling most migrants who lack valid travel documents, sending them to Mexico, Canada or their home countries without affording them the opportunity to see an immigration judge or talk to an asylum officer.

By the end of September, authorities along the U.S.-Mexico border had carried out more than 200,000 summary expulsions, including at least 8,800 unaccompanied minors. Wednesday’s order does not prohibit officials from continuing to expel adults or families with children.

The Trump administration has portrayed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) orders that have authorized these expulsions as necessary to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks inside migrant holding facilities and border communities.

But advocates for migrants have denounced the unprecedented emergency policy as another attempt to gut humanitarian protections for border crossers. The Trump administration has accused them of exploiting the U.S. asylum system to enter the country for better economic opportunities.

Three former Trump administration officials told CBS News that the White House pressured the CDC to authorize the policy in March, overruling career experts who believed there was no sound public health justification to give border officials such broad power.

One of the protections partially suspended through the expulsions policy is a provision in a Bush-era law that requires border officials to quickly transfer unaccompanied migrant children to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which houses the minors in shelters and other facilities while it seeks to release them to sponsors, who are typically family members in the U.S.

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