At least 8,800 migrant children who arrived at the southern border without their parents have been swiftly expelled from the country and denied U.S. refuge during the pandemic under an emergency policy, the Trump administration told a federal court on Friday.

In addition to the unaccompanied minors, approximately 7,600 members of migrant families with children have been expelled from the U.S.-Mexico border since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a public health order authorizing these expulsions in mid-March. 

With single adults accounted for, more than 159,000 expulsions have been carried out under the unprecedented restrictions, which the Trump administration says are designed to avert coronavirus outbreaks inside migrant holding facilities and among the broader U.S. population.

Citing the CDC order, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials have suspended humanitarian protections for most border-crossers, arguing that public health law overrides asylum, immigration and anti-trafficking safeguards during a pandemic. Instead of placing migrants in regular deportation proceedings and transferring most unaccompanied children to the U.S. refugee agency, which is required under a 2008 anti-trafficking law, border officials have been making rapid expulsions.

The previously undisclosed figures were revealed in documents the Trump administration submitted as part of an emergency request for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to stay a lower court ruling from last week. That ruling ordered the government to stop holding migrant children in hotel rooms before expelling them.


Hundreds of children denied asylum at border

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During the pandemic, the Trump administration has expanded its use of hotels to detain migrant minors whom it seeks to expel from the country under the CDC order. Some unaccompanied children and minors held with their parents wait in these hotels, where they are supervised by private Immigration and Customs Enforcement contractors, while ICE officials arrange for them to be expelled to their home countries via deportation flights. Most single adult migrants processed under the CDC directive have been turned back directly to Mexico.

According to the figures revealed Friday, nearly 7,000 families with minors and more than 6,500 unaccompanied children were expelled directly to Mexico. Border Patrol also transferred 2,200 unaccompanied children and 600 families to ICE so that the agency could expel them on flights. 

Last week, Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles said the secretive detention system violated the Flores Settlement Agreement, which governs the care of all minors in U.S. immigration custody. She said the hotels lack sufficient oversight, state licenses to hold minors, standards for the care of young children and an adequate process for migrants to seek counsel from lawyers. Gee ordered DHS to wind down its large-scale hotel detention system by next Tuesday.

In their emergency request on Friday, Justice Department lawyers said Gee’s order would undermine the Trump administration’s efforts to contain the coronavirus. 

“The district court’s order requires that all minors and families who would have been held in individual rooms in a hotel, and then expelled under the CDC order, must now instead be placed into congregate settings regardless of the CDC Director’s judgments and regardless of the limitations on the government’s ability to maintain appropriate infection-control measures in those settings. That is wrong,” the Justice Department lawyers wrote.

Trump administration officials said Gee’s ruling could overburden ICE detention facilities for families, as well as shelters administered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement to house unaccompanied minors. Border officials said the order could lead them to refer between 60 and 140 more migrant children to the refugee agency per week.

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