FORT WORTH, Texas – The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will issue an order this week about how migrant children are treated under a public health order that has prevented people from seeking asylum at the nation's borders, a Justice Department attorney said Tuesday.
The comment by Assistant U.S. Attorney Brian Stoltz at a court hearing in Fort Worth, Texas, comes as the Biden administration faces pressure from pro-immigration allies to lift the last major Trump-era restrictions on asylum at the border.
Stoltz told a federal judge that the CDC will release “a new order on the subject of the children” by the end of the week. It will revise a Biden administration policy announced in February that exempts children crossing alone from the ban on asylum.
Stoltz did not offer additional details on the changes during a hearing on a lawsuit that Texas brought to compel enforcement of the public health order that former President Donald Trump's administration used to quickly expel people from the country during the coronavirus pandemic.
The government attorney said the CDC order this week will largely render Texas' arguments moot. He did not elaborate, and CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said the agency had “nothing more to add right now.”
The CDC, in a three-paragraph order signed by its director, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, on Feb. 11, exempted unaccompanied children from being expelled to Mexico until “a forthcoming public health reassessment,” which has yet to be published. Texas argues in its lawsuit that the administration's justification was insufficient.
Higher COVID-19 vaccination rates have brought increasing pressure on the Biden administration to lift the public health order that was always intended as a temporary measure during the pandemic. While the administration has exempted unaccompanied children, some families and nearly all adults traveling alone are expelled from the United States — often to Mexico within two hours — without a chance to seek asylum.
The Associated Press reported last year that then-Vice President Mike Pence directed the CDC to use emergency powers to effectively seal America's borders, overruling agency scientists who said there was no evidence the action would slow COVID-19.
Lifting the ban could encourage more people to come to the border to seek asylum at a time when the U.S. is under mounting strain. The U.N. refugee agency reported last month that the U.S. was once again the top destination for asylum-seekers in 2020, with about 250,000 new claims filed, more than twice as high as second-place Germany.
Texas, which has the busiest corridor for illegal border crossings, is seeking a court order forcing the federal government to cease what state Deputy Attorney General Aaron Reitz called “de facto non-enforcement" of the asylum ban. Reitz argued that the Biden administration’s posture “threatens the health and safety of all Texans.”
U.S. District Judge Mark Pittman, a Trump appointee, questioned Stoltz about the timing of the new order and asked that the government inform him as soon as it is issued. Pittman did not rule on the request for an injunction but said he will put out a decision “as quickly as I can.”
Spagat reported from San Diego.