Originally published by CNN
The order came down during arguments in the first legal challenge to the administration's use of a decades-old public health law to bar the entry of migrants, including children and asylum seekers, to the US, citing the pandemic.
While the case is centered on the situation of the 16-year-old boy, the arguments raised a series of questions over how much power is granted to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to swiftly remove migrants over Covid-19 concerns.
Since late March, the Trump administration has increasingly relied on a public health order, signed by CDC Director Robert Redfield, to largely ban entry of migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border and return them to their origin country. According to the latest available data from US Customs and Border Protection, the overwhelming majority of migrants arrested at the border in May were quickly removed.
US District Court Judge Carl Nichols, a President Donald Trump appointee, grappled with the authorities designated within the law cited by the administration to expel migrants, noting that there are other immigration statutes that govern admissibility to the US and removal from the country.
"It's quite clear that something Congress does not do is expressly grant the surgeon general or director of the CDC to order return or removal of persons," Nichols said, adding that the question is whether preventing the introduction of a communicable disease would include the power to remove.
The Justice Department argued the CDC director has significant discretion when it comes to protecting the American public from contagious diseases. "This is a public health order designed to address a public health emergency, so we have a situation where the covered aliens include adults and children," said DOJ attorney Jean Lin.
At the center of the lawsuit
, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union among other groups, is a 16-year-old boy from Honduras who was seeking refuge in the United States. The lawsuit was filed in the US District Court for the District of Columbia.
According to the lawsuit, the boy, who's identified by his initials, was fleeing "severe persecution" in Honduras and was apprehended by CBP earlier this month. Wednesday's order is the second time a federal judge has temporarily blocked the boy's removal from the US.
Nichols concluded Wednesday that the boy was at risk of being harmed if returned to Honduras. He also noted that the boy doesn't have coronavirus or symptoms of it.
Unaccompanied migrant children have been afforded certain protections under US law, but new border measures have undercut those protections, ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt argued Wednesday. In this case, those measures have given way to the boy staying in immigration custody, with the threat of being sent back to his home country, instead of being transferred to a children's facility to be reunited with his father in the US.
"We do think that Congress has paid significant attention to children, has decided exemptions for asylum laws, and has not created one for public health," Gelernt said during Wednesday's hearing.
In his oral order, Nichols made note of the various law provisions that detail protections for children and removal of migrants. "There are other provisions obviously in the immigration statute that reference the power to return or to remove. Congress does not use those terms here," he said.
Gelernt applauded the ruling, saying: "The court correctly recognized that CDC's power is limited by statute and that the administration cannot accomplish its immigration goals simply by citing the public health laws."
Legal proceedings in the case are ongoing.
Public health experts have also raised concerns over the use of a public health law to keep migrants from entering the US or seeking refuge in the country. In a May letter to the Department of Health and Human Services
, more than two dozen health experts at leading public health schools, medical schools and hospitals argued there's "no public health rationale for denying admission to individuals based on legal status."