The Department of Homeland Security has expelled unaccompanied immigrant children from the US border more than 13,000 times since March, when the Trump administration gave the agency unprecedented powers to shut off border access during the pandemic coronavirus, according to an internal document obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The figure represents a significant jump in child deportations since the CDC issued an order allowing border officials to deport nearly all immigrants crossing Mexico as the coronavirus was spreading rapidly around the world in March.
“This is a huge number of children who are summarily returned without due process, potentially in grave or mortal danger,” said Lee Gelernt, an ACLU lawyer who worked to stop the order.
Previously, unaccompanied children were sent to government-run shelters as they attempted to pursue their asylum claims. But the Trump administration has argued that the policy is necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in the United States and that it has been a key tool for border officials.
Deportations are legally different from deportations, which would mean that an immigrant has actually gone through the immigration process and is not legally allowed to stay in the United States. Critics say the government is using public health orders as an excuse to violate federal laws that govern the treatment of unaccompanied minors at the border.
In September, a border official said in federal court that around 8,800 children had been removed thanks to the CDC order. The internal DHS document indicates that since March, there have been more than 13,000 “encounters” with unaccompanied immigrant children under the new policy.
A spokesperson for US Customs and Border Protection did not confirm the statistic due to an ongoing litigation, but said the “meetings” meant deportations.
“Once encountered, they would be deported,” the spokesperson said, noting that the statistic could also include children who return to the border multiple times.
Before the pandemic, unaccompanied children in the care of border patrol officers were sent to the Refugee Resettlement Office, where they would be accommodated in shelters as they officially began to seek asylum and waited to be reunited with their family members in the United States.
The ORR referral process was created by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which was signed by then-President George W. Bush in 2008. By law, CBP officials are generally required to refer cases. children within 72 hours at the U.S. Refugee Agency.
But those referrals dropped precipitously after the CDC order. Instead, unaccompanied children at the border are immediately returned to Mexico or detained at CBP facilities until a flight can deport them from the country.
At the end of June, US District Judge Carl Nichols, appointed by President Donald Trump, blocked deportation of a 16-year-old Honduran boy under the order of the CDC. While the decision did not overturn the policy entirely, it was seen as a blow to the administration. Since then, the government has said it no longer seeks to use the CDC’s order to expel the boy from the country.
In September, a federal judge also ordered the Trump administration to stop holding immigrant children in hotels before quickly sending them back to their country of origin as part of the pandemic border policy.