A federal judge has now halted that practice even as he acknowledged the administration’s far-reaching powers in the midst of a public health emergency. Those powers are broad, U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled, but do not enable the government to send minors packing without affording them a chance to have their asylum claims heard.
At least 13,000 children have been detained by Border Patrol officers and swiftly thrown out of the country under an emergency decree that has effectively sealed off the southern border to most migrants since the spring. Administration officials justified the measure in the name of protecting the country from a potential influx of migrants carrying the coronavirus — but performed no testing, and provided no data, to substantiate their stance.
Given infection rates in Mexico and Central America, it may be reasonable to assume that some migrants, including unaccompanied minors, might have contracted covid-19. It may also be the case, however, as the ACLU argued in court, that the practice of expelling young migrants actually exposes U.S. border authorities to more risk — in the course of holding them while flights are arranged to their home countries in Central America or elsewhere — than they would otherwise face if the migrants were placed in shelters that have the capacity to adopt social distancing and other precautions. Judge Sullivan, for his part, said the government had asserted its “scientific and technical expertise” to justify its policy of evicting young migrants — but provided none by way of actual evidence.
As it happens, it occurred to at least some administration officials, early on in the pandemic, that migrant children deserved some special consideration. When the policy of suspending asylum was first rolled out, children who crossed the border were exempted. That was quickly reversed, however, with a spokesman saying that minors would be returned to their countries of origin on a “case by case basis.” In the ensuing months, however, virtually all have been expelled.
Anti-trafficking and other laws provide for protections for unaccompanied minors who arrive in this country. The administration has seized on the pandemic to disregard those, along with other long-standing measures and practices that set procedures for migrants seeking refuge here. A more humane approach, in line with American traditions and values, would have established a process for testing and quarantining, at least for migrant children, as they pursued asylum claims. But humane policy is anathema to the Trump administration, and the result is thousands of children who have been subjected to unwarranted hardship and risk.