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NEW YORK (AP) — A group of Democratic lawmakers called on the Trump administration Monday to stop the expulsion of unaccompanied children and other asylum seekers at the U.S. border by using emergency powers granted during the coronavirus pandemic.

The letter to acting Department of Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, comes after reporting by The Associated Press revealed that Vice President Mike Pence directed CDC to effectively close the U.S. land borders to immigrants and asylum seekers, according to two former health officials.

The directive from Pence came after the top CDC doctor who normally oversees such orders refused a White House mandate to halt the flow of immigrants across the border because he said there was no valid public health reason to do so. The action has so far caused more than 197,000 migrant children and adults to be expelled from the country.

“Clearly, expulsions lack a public health rationale, and the U.S. government is fully capable of receiving and placing unaccompanied children and asylum seekers while also protecting public health,” said the letter, signed by 58 lawmakers.

In a statement, the CDC refused to comment on the situation, citing pending litigation, but said it would respond directly to Congress. DHS did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday. Pence’s spokeswoman, Katie Miller, has denied that he directed the CDC on this issue.

At issue is the March 20 order under Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act, which gives federal health officials unique powers during a pandemic to take extraordinary measures to limit transmission of an infectious disease. One of those is the ability to stop the flow of immigration from countries with high numbers of confirmed cases, a legal authority the CDC does not normally have.

The CDC’s order covers the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada, but has mostly affected the thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants arriving at the southern border. Public health experts had urged the administration to focus on a national mask mandate, enforce social distancing and increase the number of contact tracers to track down people exposed to the virus.

But Stephen Miller, a top aide to President Donald Trump who has been a vocal opponent of immigration, pushed for the expulsion order, according to Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Pence, who coordinated the White House coronavirus task force.

Before March, Central American children who crossed into the U.S. alone generally were sent to facilities overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. HHS shelters are required to be state-licensed, have beds and provide schooling. Most children are eventually placed with family or friends who serve as sponsors while they await their day in court.

Under the Title 42 order this year, the administration instead detained some migrant children in hotels, sometimes for weeks, before expelling them to their home countries.

In their letter, the lawmakers say the order endangers children, including by exposing them to risks such as human trafficking.

“By bypassing these procedures, DHS is placing the well-being of these children — and in some cases, their lives — in jeopardy,” the letter states.


Burke reported from San Francisco.