A federal judge on Wednesday put a major dent in the government’s coronavirus policy that allows expulsion of most illegal immigrants nabbed at the border, ruling that children who show up without parents cannot be immediately ousted.
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan said the public health law doesn’t trump immigration law, which calls for the children to be transferred from Homeland Security to social workers at the Health and Human Services Department.
Immigrant-rights groups cheered the move, saying it will give thousands of children hope of avoiding a speedy ouster.
“Our federal laws are clear: unaccompanied immigrant children are entitled to enter our country, be placed in child-appropriate settings before being reunited with family, and seek humanitarian protection,” said Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus on Children.
When the pandemic hit, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention triggered a section of public health law that allows for immediate expulsion of unauthorized border crossers in order to limit spread of a disease.
Homeland Security credits that CDC order with preventing an ever larger spread of COVID-19 in the U.S., saying it’s helped them keep down border numbers. More than 90% of illegal migrants across the border are returned in under two hours.
That’s helped cut backlogs at border processing stations. At their peak last summer they held 20,000 migrants. Now they hold several hundred, lessening the risks from crowding.
But Judge Sullivan said the public health law doesn’t get around immigration law, which calls for children from beyond Mexico and Canada who show up without parents — Unaccompanied Alien Children, or UAC, in government-speak — to get let in and put in the hands of social workers.
Immigrant-rights advocates say the CDC policy should also be halted for adult migrants and families claiming asylum, arguing they, like the UACs, deserve a chance to gain a foothold here and make their case.