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DHS indefinitely extends, expands border asylum ban

The public health order was expanded to bar entry at coastal ports

A Customs and Border Protection agent processes migrants who crossed the border in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of Texas last August.
A Customs and Border Protection agent processes migrants who crossed the border in the Rio Grande Valley Sector of Texas last August. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call)

The latest extension of a Trump administration order barring entry of unauthorized migrants at the southern and northern border will remain in place indefinitely and includes an expansion that also bans entry from coastal ports.

The extension of border restrictions originally announced in March stem from a public health order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The order will remain in place until the CDC “determines the serious danger from COVID-19 has ceased,” acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said in a statement late Tuesday.

“This order has been one of the most critical tools the Department has used to prevent the further spread of the virus and to protect the American people, DHS frontline officers, and those in their care and custody from COVID-19,” Wolf said.

The order, signed by CDC Director Robert R. Redfield, amends the original ban to clarify it also applies to migrants coming to coastal ports of entry near the U.S. border with Canada and Mexico. That means it applies to individuals who may have crossed into the country via boat, not just those who approached by land. 

The order mentions that the circumstances resulting from the coronavirus pandemic would be reviewed every 30 days, but gives no other details on what changes might result in the administration lifting the order.

The CDC and DHS did not respond to CQ Roll Call questions regarding how the order’s effectiveness would be evaluated or what conditions could precipitate the end of the ban. 

The order was first announced on March 20 and then extended for a month in April. When Trump originally announced the measure, he said it would help prevent a “viral spread at our borders.” He invoked a World War II-era law that permits the president to prohibit “the introduction of persons and property from such countries or places” if they are deemed likely to introduce communicable illnesses into the country.

Health researchers tracking the pandemic, however, have consistently noted there are far fewer cases of COVID-19 in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — the countries providing the largest number of migrants to the U.S. southern border — than in the United States. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection later clarified that the order applies to unaccompanied children — raising concerns that the administration was violating a federal law that lays out how unaccompanied minors are processed and cared for upon arrival at the border. 

The border restrictions have generated outrage from immigration advocacy groups because they have barred even asylum seekers, people who have the legal right to seek humanitarian protections regardless of how they enter the country. 

More than 20,000 migrants have been summarily “expelled” at the border since the administration imposed the order, according to statistics on the Customs and Border Protection website. The agency confirmed to CQ Roll Call that 915 minors have been turned back under the order in March and April. 

Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, released a statement Wednesday saying that the order has “been tremendously effective in providing the ability to effectively protect United States citizens and others in the country legally by reducing the spread of COVID-19.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, the Texas Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a press call Wednesday that he and other members would bring up the CDC order during future funding discussions, particularly if CBP and other Homeland Security agencies ask for additional appropriations. 

“Congress needs to take into account the fact that they’re not doing nearly the work they were doing three months ago — they’re not letting anyone into the country,” he said. “Congress has to be very aggressive about scrubbing the budgets of these federal agencies, given the policies that they’re pursuing at this point.”

In April, top Democrats of the Senate Judiciary Committee sent a letter blasting DHS for granting “itself sweeping powers to summarily expel large, unknown numbers of individuals arriving at our border.” 

“Contrary to existing law, individuals, families, and children are now unable to sufficiently make claims for asylum, seek other forms of humanitarian protection, and, in some instances, are being expelled to countries in which they fear persecution,” the senators wrote in the letter. 

On Tuesday, asylum and refugee organizations condemned the extension of the CDC order. 

“The mixed messaging is dizzying,” said Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, in a statement. “In the same breath that the administration tells Americans that our country is safe enough to begin re-opening, it cuts off every conceivable path to protection for the most vulnerable asylum seekers.”

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