HOUSTON – A federal judge has temporarily stopped President Donald Trump's administration from expelling a teenager to Honduras under a policy enacted during the coronavirus pandemic that didn't give the teen a chance under federal law to stay in the United States.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal groups, the 16-year-old had been scheduled to be expelled Wednesday, six days after he entered the U.S. to reunite with his father. The ACLU says the boy fled because gang members threatened him after he saw one of them kill someone in his neighborhood.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington issued an order late Tuesday preventing the government from expelling the teenager through the end of the day Wednesday as litigation is pending. The teen was not identified by name in court papers.
Another federal judge also in Washington, Carl Nichols, proposed Wednesday that the boy be allowed to remain the country for two weeks to allow time for formal arguments at a court hearing. Details were to be worked out.
“This lawsuit is a critical step to begin repairing the damage being done by these harmful attacks against our common humanity,” said Noah Gottschalk, a spokesman for the nonprofit Oxfam America, which joined the lawsuit.
The ACLU also sued on behalf of a 13-year-old girl who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in April, asking a judge to allow her back into the U.S. She had hoped to reunite with her mother, a former police officer targeted by Salvadoran gangs who now lives lawfully in the country. According to the ACLU, agents detained the teenager for a week in a Border Patrol processing center and a hotel, then expelled her to El Salvador.
The Border Patrol did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.
The cases are the first known challenges of the Trump administration's expulsion of hundreds of immigrant children at the border under an emergency declaration citing the coronavirus. Trump’s administration says that under federal law on public health emergencies it must close the border to asylum seekers — including children — to prevent the spread of the virus.
Under federal law, border agents would typically take youth originally from outside Canada and Mexico to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which places unaccompanied migrant children with sponsors, usually family members. In the case of the 16-year-old from Honduras, agents detained him in a detention center, then a hotel, without giving him the chance to request asylum, according to the ACLU. The boy is in good health and has shown no signs of COVID-19, according to the group.
Opponents of Trump’s clampdown on immigration say the coronavirus is a pretext to accomplish a long-held goal of his administration: shutting down asylum at the southern border.
“This is more extreme than any other border policy we’ve seen from the administration,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU lawyer. Gelernt argued that the ACLU’s lawsuit challenging thousands of family separations that led to a federal judge's June 2018 order mandating that parents and children be reunited.
Under a 2008 anti-trafficking law and a federal court settlement known as the Flores agreement, children from countries other than Canada and Mexico must have access to legal counsel and cannot be immediately deported. They are also supposed to be released to family in the U.S. or otherwise held in the least restrictive setting possible. The rules are intended to prevent children from being mistreated or falling into the hands of criminals.
Health and Human Services provides services for immigrant children who are first apprehended by border agents. Since the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued its March 20 order restricting immigration, the process of referring children to HHS has been almost entirely shut down.
Thousands of children are typically apprehended by the Border Patrol monthly crossing from Mexico, according to the agency's statistics. In April, the Border Patrol processed 166 children as “unaccompanied” minors, meaning they would be taken to HHS youth holding facilities and allowed to stay in the U.S. at least temporarily, and expelled the remaining 600.
HHS is currently receiving about one child a day, spokesman Mark Weber said.