Advocacy organizations have sued the Trump administration to stop a 16-year-old boy from being summarily sent back to Honduras after he crossed into the U.S. last week to join his father. It’s the first challenge to the Trump administration’s policy of mass expulsions of border-crossers, under which nearly 45,000 migrants — including 2,000 children — have been pushed out of the U.S.
The suit was filed Tuesday night in U.S. District Court in Washington by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies and Oxfam. A judge has put a 24-hour hold on the boy’s expulsion, pending further consideration of the case.
While the suit is limited to the boy, it sets up a broader argument over the legality of the policy. Advocates accuse the Trump administration of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to violate U.S. and international law.
A Customs and Border Protection spokesperson told ProPublica: “As a matter of policy, CBP cannot comment on pending litigation. However, lack of comment should not be construed as agreement or stipulation with any of the allegations.”
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order barring unauthorized immigrants from entering the U.S. The order rests on an obscure federal law giving the government power to ban the entry of people or things that could “introduce” an infectious disease — in this case, the novel coronavirus.
The Trump administration has been secretive about its implementation of the CDC order. However, in April, ProPublica obtained internal Border Patrol guidance. The guidance instructed agents to summarily expel migrants to whom the CDC order applied, without considering whether they might be persecuted in their home countries — a screening required of agents under U.S. immigration law.
A separate law requires all unauthorized-immigrant children (except for Mexicans) entering the U.S. without their parents to be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services within 72 hours, so they can be placed with a relative in the U.S. while seeking legal status. However, the administration acknowledges that minors entering the U.S. are also being expelled under the CDC order.
The suit argues that the public-health law doesn’t create a separate immigration process, and that the Trump administration is illegally using it to create one. Relying on the documents published by ProPublica, advocates argue that the administration is violating laws requiring extra protections for migrants who fear persecution, and for children entering the U.S. without their parents.
A CBP spokesperson told ProPublica that as of June 2, 2,175 “single minors” had been expelled. The spokesperson claimed that “unaccompanied children” are still being processed under immigration laws, but “single minors” are being processed under the CDC order. When asked what made someone an “unaccompanied child” instead of a “single minor,” the spokesperson said: “I cannot provide you with that info as it is law enforcement sensitive and could be exploited by human smugglers and activists. But signs of trafficking and medical emergencies could get someone under 18 processed via immigration authority and referred to HHS.”
The child at the center of the lawsuit is referred to by his initials, J.B.B.C. His father, Carlos Barrera Rodriguez, lives in the U.S. and has a pending asylum case.
According to the lawsuit, the teenager fled Honduras this spring after being threatened by gang members. When he crossed the border into El Paso, Texas, however, he was not given any opportunity to explain why he was afraid of being returned to Honduras.
The lawsuit says that the father received a call from an anonymous official asking him to confirm the father’s identity, but that he was told nothing about his son’s whereabouts. For the last five days, the suit alleges, the 16-year-old has been held in a hotel. He was originally scheduled to be put on a Wednesday flight to Honduras, before the judge issued a temporary stay Tuesday night.
“J.B.B.C. has not exhibited any symptoms of COVID-19,” the lawsuit states, “and is in good health.”
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