HOUSTON (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday extended an order preventing the Trump administration from deporting a 16-year-old boy from Honduras under its emergency border declaration citing the coronavirus.
U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols in Washington did not rule immediately on the first challenge to a policy that has resulted in the rapid expulsions of hundreds of migrant children. Instead, he told lawyers for the government and the American Civil Liberties Union that he wanted to hear more about the case and make a final decision on the teen’s fate in the near future. The judge did not set a deadline for his stay, which originally was to expire Wednesday.
Under a March declaration from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, border agents have been quickly placing children and teenagers on deportation flights instead of turning them over to federal facilities for placement with sponsors, as is normally required by federal law. President Donald Trump’s administration argues the coronavirus pandemic requires that most migrants seeking asylum not be allowed into the country because they could infect Americans, even though the U.S. has by far the most confirmed COVID-19 cases of any country.
The ACLU and other legal groups sued on behalf of the teenager, who was not named in court papers but is said to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border on his own, fleeing persecution. The teen does not have the coronavirus or any symptoms of infection, the ACLU has said.
Nichols, a Trump appointee, said he believed the ACLU was likely to succeed in its argument that federal law didn’t give the CDC authority to exclude immigrants already on U.S. soil. He also noted that even if the teenager had COVID-19 when he entered the U.S., he had been in the country long enough that any risk of spreading an infection would have passed.
ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said the impact of the judge’s findings “is not limited to this one boy.”
More than 1,000 minors are believed to have been expelled since March. Border agents expelled 700 youths in April, but U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman Matthew Dyman has refused to say how many were expelled in May.
According to the government, agents apprehended the teenager June 4 near El Paso, Texas, after he crossed the border illegally. They determined he was eligible for expulsion under the order and moved him to a hotel to await the next flight to Honduras. The ACLU sued the day before the scheduled flight.
Many of the children expelled are teenagers from Central America who crossed the border on their own to try to join family members in the U.S., but in at least one case, a 10-year-old boy was sent to Honduras after his mother had him cross the border alone from the refugee camp where they were living in Matamoros, Mexico. That refugee camp is the outgrowth of another Trump program targeting asylum seekers known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or “Remain in Mexico,” in which tens of thousands of people have been sent back across the border to await court dates.
The administration this month issued a draft rule that would impose new restrictions on asylum and make it substantially more difficult to win a claim.
This story has been corrected to show the judge’s last name is Nichols, not Nicholas.