Court Halts Deportation of Migrant Boy in Challenge to Border Closure

Court Halts Deportation of Migrant Boy in Challenge to Border Closure

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Originally published by The New York Times

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., halted the deportation of a 16-year-old Honduran boy on Tuesday night, in the first legal challenge to the Trump administration’s border closure policy in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawyers who filed the case hoped the decision would serve as a first step toward reversing the March 21 order by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that blocks most nonessential travel across the borders with Mexico and Canada.

The boy at the center of the case, known as J.B.B.C., entered the United States on June 4, hoping to seek asylum. Rather than transferring him to a federal shelter for migrant children while his asylum claim was reviewed, as has been customary for decades when children arrive without adult guardians, border officials began making arrangements to deport him immediately back to Honduras, where, according to his father and lawyers, he would have been in danger.

The boy’s father, Carlos Emilio Barrera Rodríguez, said that when he learned what was happening to his son, he began frantically searching for a lawyer who could help keep the boy in the United States. The boy has been staying temporarily in a hotel in West Texas, in the custody of the federal Customs and Border Protection agency.

Mr. Barrera Rodríguez said he fled Honduras for the United States in 2014 after he was robbed outside a bank in San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. He has been living with family members in Houston while his own case for asylum is being processed, which can take years.

He said his son had been living until recently with an aunt in Honduras, and was traumatized by seeing gang members murder a young man in the streets. When the gang members began to threaten the boy, his father said, the boy decided to flee to the United States.

“I can’t eat, I can’t sleep. I can’t concentrate at work, because I’m so worried about what will happen to him,” Mr. Barrera Rodríguez said of his son. “This decision has given me a little bit of peace because I know he won’t be deported tomorrow.”

In an emergency hearing just before midnight on Tuesday, a federal judge in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia temporarily halted the boy’s deportation until a full hearing could be scheduled.

The government has not yet responded to the case.

The border policy now under review is the most restrictive clampdown in a series of policies that have severely limited the ability of asylum seekers to gain entry to the United States. With the latest border restriction, hundreds of children, some as young as 10, have been returned to their home countries — in some cases with no notice to their families.

The closure order exempts U.S. citizens and their spouses, and it allows essential travel for business and other purposes. Exceptions have been added for professional athletes, including basketball and hockey players and golfers. But asylum seekers remain blocked.

The policy uses a 1944 law that grants the president broad power to block foreigners from entering the country to prevent the “serious threat” of a dangerous disease. The Trump administration has called it a “critical tool” to prevent the coronavirus from being carried into the country, and has extended the policy indefinitely.

Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed the suit to stop the boy’s deportation, argued that it would violate federal laws requiring that children arriving without adult guardians be transferred to specially designed shelters and provided with social workers, schooling and medical care. The laws also require that such children be held in the least restrictive settings possible, and that the government make efforts to release them as quickly as possible to sponsors, who are often relatives living in the United States.

The lawyers argue that the administration’s border closure policy misinterprets the 1944 law, which they say was intended to allow a president to test or quarantine individuals who were thought to be seriously ill and were seeking to migrate. They say it does not allow a president to block migrants entirely from entering, or to expel them to their home countries.

“This is a horrendous move by the Trump administration to target vulnerable young children on the heels of its family separation practice,” said Lee Gelernt, the lead A.C.L.U. counsel on the case. “We would have liked to have assumed that the administration heard the public outcry about terrorizing children and would not have done it again. But now we have young children fleeing for their lives and being turned away in violation of the protections Congress has enacted.”

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