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Members of Congress Call for End to Expulsions of Children, Demand Answers from DHS and CDC

November 2, 2020
Press Release

PASADENA, CA – On Friday, 58 Members of Congress, led by Rep. Judy Chu (CA-27), sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Acting Secretary Chad Wolf and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Director Robert Redfield demanding an end to the Trump Administration’s expulsion of unaccompanied children at the border without due process. The letter also asks for answers about how the expulsions were implemented, who the children are, if the children are being tested for COVID-19, and if the children’s welfare and development are being protected. The letter’s co-leads, Reps. Chu, Jim Langevin (RI-02), and Karen Bass (CA-37), issued the following statements:

“Once again, this administration is endangering children as part of its war on immigrants,” said Rep. Chu. “Lacking a real immigration policy, this administration is instead making a show of detaining and deporting children who are fleeing violence or abuse without due process as is required. Worse, there is ample evidence that the Trump Administration’s disregard for child welfare is harming development, retraumatizing children seeking asylum, and in some cases, even resulting in their deaths. If this policy is being done with an eye towards the law and child welfare, then DHS should be able to demonstrate that by responding to our requests in this letter. However, as with the earlier separation of immigrant families and subsequent imprisonment of immigrant children, all evidence indicates that this policy is another way to spread fear of immigrants and is harming children – perhaps for life. That is why we demand that this administration must immediately abandon this cruel policy, stick to the requirements in  the Flores Agreement, and allow these children a fair screening to assess their claim for asylum. Child abuse must not be the policy of the United States.”

“Time and again, the Trump Administration has treated immigrants arriving in the United States with callous disregard. The most recent atrocity of summarily expelling immigrants, including asylum seekers and children, under the guise of public health only adds to the severe trauma they have experienced,” said Rep. Langevin. “Particularly for children, this inhumane treatment can disrupt their development and have far-reaching effects later in life. The President and his Administration are willfully putting children in danger not to protect the public health, but to further their own anti-immigrant agenda.”

“The gross violations of child welfare principles perpetrated by this administration are unacceptable,” said Rep. Bass. “To use a pandemic that is out of control due to the administration’s negligence as an excuse to further traumatize refugees is despicable. As we state in our letter, children pursuing refuge in the United States are, above all else, children. The permanent psychological damage caused by these callous actions must be accounted for.”

The letter is endorsed by Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), National Center for Youth Law, Women’s Refugee Commission, and Bethany Christian Services.

“KIND has seen first-hand how devastating expulsions have been for vulnerable children seeking protection from life-threatening danger,” said Jason Boyd, Director of Policy at KIND. “The administration should cease these expulsions immediately to comport with U.S. law and to restore order to border operations. We have a responsibility to adopt a fundamentally humanitarian approach at the border that recognizes unaccompanied children’s need for protection and ensures their appropriate reception, screening, and care.”

“The Administration’s unlawful and inhumane expulsions of thousands of children is the latest in a series of human rights violations against this most vulnerable population,” said Neha Desai, Esq., Director, Immigration at the National Center for Youth Law. “As Flores counsel, representing all children in federal immigration custody, the National Center for Youth Law is grateful to the many members of Congress who have joined the call to protect children’s health and safety by ending this egregious practice.

“Children who escape violence, persecution, and danger in their home countries are fleeing for their survival,” said Chris Palusky, president and CEO of Bethany. “Quickly expelling children with complete disregard to the protections U.S. law affords them does nothing to promote the eradication of COVID-19, but rather puts children in more danger and keeps families apart. Organizations that care for unaccompanied children who are waiting to reunify with their family, like Bethany, are prepared to meet the mental and physical health needs of these vulnerable kids and keep them – and the American people – safe amid the pandemic.”

The letter is signed by: Reps. Judy Chu, Karen Bass, Jim Langevin, Sheila Jackson Lee, Frederica S. Wilson, Eleanor Holmes Norton, Nanette Diaz Barragán, Jim Cooper, James P. McGovern, Filemon Vela, Gwen Moore, David Trone, Raúl Grijalva, Sylvia R. Garci, Tony Cárdenas, Albio Sires, Juan Vargas, Nydia M. Velázquez, Bill Foster, Debbie Dingell, Betty McCollum, Jahana Hayes, Chellie Pingree, Yvette D. Clarke, Terri A. Sewell, Veronica Escobar, Mark Pocan, Lloyd Doggett, Mark DeSaulnier, Susan A. Davis, Suzan K. DelBene, Adriano Espaillat, Jamie Raskin, Dina Titus, Mark Takano, Joe Neguse, Jan Schakowsky, Linda T. Sánchez , Jackie Speier, Rosa L. DeLauro, Grace Meng, Joaquin Castro, Brenda L. Lawrence, Adam Smith, Grace F. Napolitano, Ayanna Pressley, Mike Quigley, Pramila Jayapal, Andy Levin, Jimmy Panetta, Kim Schrier, M.D., Peter Welch, Alan Lowenthal, Jason Crow, Lucille Roybal-Allard, Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici, and Lois Frankel.

The letter is available online here and pasted below:


October 30, 2020

Chad Wolf                                                                  Robert R. Redfield, MD

Acting Secretary                                                         Director

Department of Homeland Security                            Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

1880 2nd Street SW                                                    1600 Clifton Road

Washington, DC 20024                                              Atlanta, GA 30333

 

Dear Acting Secretary Wolf and Director Redfield,

We strongly object to the Trump administration’s expulsions of unaccompanied children seeking protection at the U.S. southern border and demand they immediately cease. Children pursuing refuge in the United States are, above all else, children. Their developmental stage and dependence on adults render them uniquely vulnerable. Compounding that vulnerability, these children have often traveled to the United States to escape extreme violence, abuse, and even threats to their very survival; suffer continuing trauma; and in the case of unaccompanied children, arrive without primary caretakers. Yet in violation of virtually every recognized child welfare principle, the administration is summarily returning them to the same dangers they fled. These expulsions must end now. 

On March 20, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an order[1]— that bars unaccompanied children along with the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers, including accompanied children, from entering the United States. Pursuant to that order, DHS has expelled over 8,800 unaccompanied children,[2] returning them without legally mandated protection screenings, immigration court hearings, or other due process safeguards.

The administration has maintained that the CDC order and associated expulsions comprise a necessary public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, recent media reports reveal that CDC scientists themselves objected to the March 20 order, finding no “valid public health reason to issue it.”[3]  These reports suggest that the White House pushed CDC officials to issue the order anyway, over the objections of public health officials, using the pandemic as a pretext to meet the administration’s longstanding aim of closing the United States to protection seekers.[4] In fact, hundreds of unaccompanied children have been placed with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in recent months. 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.[5]

These actions also run counter to the law. For one, expulsions of unaccompanied children violate the bipartisan Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (TVPRA), which mandates that the U.S. government afford unaccompanied children a meaningful opportunity to seek humanitarian relief.[6] The administration cannot evade this binding law by executive fiat, nor other binding standards, like the Flores Settlement Agreement (Flores), that are carefully crafted to ensure the humane treatment of children. Indeed, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California has already ruled that the prolonged placement of children in hotels pursuant to the CDC order has violated Flores. The appellate court denied the government’s request to stay that ruling, finding the government is “unlikely to prevail on the merits” of its pending appeal.

What expulsions fail to do, then, is uphold U.S. law or public health. What they do instead is flout consensus child welfare principles—ones that informed the TVPRA and Flores and have long shaped policy towards children across federal, state, and local government. While the principles broken are numerous, let us examine three.

First, instead of protecting the safety and well-being of children, expulsions endanger them.  Under the CDC order, the administration is disregarding longstanding safeguards designed to identify risks facing unaccompanied children, such as human trafficking, and to prevent their return into harm’s way. By bypassing these procedures, DHS is placing the well-being of these children—and in some cases, their lives—in jeopardy. A recent media report on an expelled 12-year-old brother and his 9-year-old sister appears to highlight such outcomes.[7] Though these children fled to the United States from Honduras after their uncle was killed and their own lives were threatened, DHS expelled them to that threat’s very source.

Second, rather than promote family unity, expulsions may frustrate or outright preclude it. Unaccompanied children who are permitted to enter the United States and who then qualify for humanitarian protection may be able to rejoin parents or other family members residing here. Expulsions eliminate that opportunity. Even in instances involving unaccompanied children whose family members remain in their home countries, expulsions may fail to ensure that those children are safely reunited with those loved ones upon return. Cases that prompt such fears include a 10-year-old boy whom DHS expelled to his home country “without notifying any of his family members.”[8]

Third, eschewing rigorous, transparent data collection and independent monitoring, DHS has implemented expulsions in the shadows. The Department has provided minimal information to the public on expulsion procedures, criteria for exceptions to the underlying CDC order, and even the number of unaccompanied and accompanied children expelled. In fact, rather than furnish a clear total of unaccompanied child expulsions, DHS has disclosed only that, as of September 9, it had expelled 8,800 “single minors”—a construction that lacks a statutory basis and that raises the possibility that a significantly higher number of unaccompanied children have been returned to danger.[9] In addition, the Department has expelled approximately 7,600 “members of family units or family groups,” but has not identified how many of those family unit or group members were children.[10]

In addition, since March 20, 2020, DHS has detained at least 660 children for various lengths of time in unlicensed hotels—some for up to 38 days.[11] One unaccompanied 17-year-old girl, held for over 15 nights at a hotel pursuant to the order, told her attorney that she was “rarely allowed outside of her room,” felt “isolated and anxious while she was detained in a hotel room” by unknown adults who “watched her at all times,” and was warned by DHS officials that if she informed her mother of her location, she would no longer be allowed to call her.[12]

In a troubling parallel to the 2018 family separation crisis, we are concerned that the administration is not properly tracking information relating to the detention or expulsion of unaccompanied children.  This concern has been echoed by U.S. District Court Judge Dolly Gee, who stated that “[t]he fact that the government cannot seem to consistently keep track of how many children it has held in its custody is disturbing, to put it mildly. It is emblematic of the problem with such an opaque, unregulated, ad hoc program.”[13]

These violations of child welfare principles have no place in the United States of America. We therefore call upon the administration to immediately cease expulsions of children and to fully comply with the TVPRA and all other relevant laws and standards governing their screening, care, and placement. We also request that you provide written responses to the below questions no later than November 13, 2020.

  1. Please provide copies of all CDC research relating to the March 20 order and its extensions and amendments, as well as copies of all correspondence between CDC, DHS, and the White House relating to the order, its extensions and amendments, and implementation thereof.
     
  2. Please provides copies of all guidance, policies, procedures, training materials, and other documentation, including information about exceptions, if any, relating to the CDC order and expulsions implemented pursuant to it.
     
  3. What criteria is DHS using to determine which children to exempt from the CDC order and process under Title 8 in accordance with the TVPRA? How are those implementing this process trained on these criteria?
     
  4. Since March 20, how many minors has DHS expelled pursuant to the CDC order who were under the age of 18, encountered without a parent or legal guardian, and lacked lawful immigration status? Please identify this figure in total and as broken down based on the minors’ age, sex, country of origin, and country of return. Please also identify the mean, median, minimum, and maximum length of detention for this population of children.
     
  5. Are all children being tested for COVID-19 before being expelled? And if not, why are some children tested and some are not? Has DHS knowingly or unknowingly expelled any children that have tested positive for COVID-19? What type of information on the child, including COVID screening/testing results, is being provided to government authorities in the country of return prior to a child being expelled?  In what timeframe and with which authorities is this information shared?  How does DHS ensure that receiving authorities get adequate information early enough to make proper preparations to mitigate child protection risks?
     
  6. Please provide specific details about protection screenings performed, if any, of minors under the age of 18, encountered without a parent or legal guardian, and who lack lawful immigration status, including those minors deemed subject to the CDC order. Please include details about who, if anyone, is performing the screenings and what protocols, if any, are in place to assure developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed and child-friendly interviews.
     
  7. Prior to issuance of the CDC order, did CDC and DHS consult with nongovernmental experts in child welfare and protection to assess whether the order and associated expulsions would conform to established child welfare principles and practices?

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter. 

Sincerely,

 

[1] “Order Suspending Introduction of Certain persons From Countries Where a Communicable Disease Exists,” 85

FR 17060.

[2] Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “Nearly 9,000 migrant children have been expelled under pandemic border policy, court documents say;” CBS News (Sep. 11, 2020); https://www.cbsnews.com/news/8800-migrant-children-have-been-expelled-under-pandemic-border-policy-per-court-documents/.

[3] Jason Dearen and Garance Burke, “Pence ordered borders closed after CDC experts refused,” Associated Press (Oct. 3, 2020); https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-pandemics-public-health-new-york-health-4ef0c6c5263815a26f8aa17f6ea490ae.

[4] Michelle Hackman, Andrew Restuccia, and Stephanie Armour, “CDC Officials Objected to Order Turning Away Migrants at Border” Wall Street Journal (Oct. 3, 2020); https://www.wsj.com/articles/cdc-officials-objected-to-order-turning-away-migrants-at-border-11601733601.

Camilo Montoya-Galvez, “U.S. Stops Holding Migrant Children in Hotels but Says They Can Still Be Expelled,” CBS News (October 2, 2020); https://www.cbsnews.com/news/u-s-stops-holding-migrant-children-in-hotels-but-says-they-can-still-be-expelled/

[6] William Wilberforce Trafficking Victim Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 110-457, 122 Stat. 5044 (2008) (“TVPRA”).

[7] Nomaan Merchant, “Seeking Safety in US, children fleeing danger are expelled” (Aug. 6, 2020); https://apnews.com/article/ap-top-news-honduras-mexico-health-immigration-1144b498194cd6b6818acd04d7880e05.

[8] Caitlin Dickerson, “10 Years Old, Tearful and Confused After a Sudden Deportation,” New York Times (May 20, 2020); https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/20/us/coronavirus-migrant-children-unaccompanied-minors.html.

[9] Declaration of Raul L. Ortiz, September 11, 2020,at ¶ 6, Defendants’ Exhibit 1, Defendants’ Ex Parte Application to Stay Order, ECF No. 976, https://youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/985_Govt-Ex-Parte-App-to-Stay-with-Exhibits.pdf.

[10] Id.

[11] Flores v. Barr, Case No. 2:28-cv-04544-DMG, Order re Plaintiffs’ Motion to Enforce Settlement as to “Title 42” Class Members, ECF No. 976, at 3, September 4, 2020, https://youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/976-Flores-Order-re-Hotel-MTE.pdf; Flores v. Barr, No. 20-55951, Plaintiffs-Appellees’ Opposition to Renewed Emergency Motion for Administrative Stay and Stay Pending Appeal, ECF No. 16-1, at 16, September 25, 2020, https://youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/16-1-Plaintiffs-Appellees-Opp.-to-Renewed-Emergency-Mot.-for-Admin.-Stay-and-Stay-Pending-Appeal.pdf.

[12] Declaration of Taylor Levy, September 18, 2020, at ¶ 9, Exhibit 1, Plaintiffs’ Opposition to Ex Parte Application to Stay Order, ECF No. 988, https://youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/985_Govt-Ex-Parte-App-to-Stay-with-Exhibits.pdf.

[13] Flores v. Barr, Case No. 2:28-cv-04544-DMG, Order re Defendants’ Ex Parte Application to Stay, ECF No. 990, at 3 n2, September 21, 2020, https://youthlaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/990_Order-Denying-Govt-Ex-Parte-Application-to-Stay.pdf.

Issues: