WASHINGTON – The CDC ruled this weekend that unaccompanied minors should not be turned back at the border over COVID-19 concerns, a move welcomed by advocates who say the change now needs to be extended to all immigrants.
The ruling Saturday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention applies to Title 42, which lets border officials deny entry to anyone who might introduce a communicable disease to the U.S. It makes official what has been Biden administration policy since last January, when the new president prohibited the expulsion of unaccompanied minors under Title 42.
But with 1.5 million migrants turned away under Title 42 – more than 1 million of them since President Joe Biden took office – Democrats said it’s past time to end the practice altogether.
“Ending Title 42 for unaccompanied migrant children is a step forward, but the truth is that Title 42 remains a cruel relic and policy reminder of the Trump-immigration era,” Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, said in a statement released Sunday.
“It’s time to immediately end Title 42 for adults and families once and for all and overhaul our immigration and asylum-seeking process to be just, humane and fair,” Grijalva’s statement said.
Calls seeking comment on the change from the CDC, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were not immediately returned Monday.
The policy began in March 2020, when the Department of Health and Human Services imposed an emergency regulation that applied Title 42 to the COVID-19 pandemic, prohibiting entry to all undocumented migrants who arrived at the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico.
Almost 16,000 unaccompanied youth had been expelled by November 2020, when the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ordered the practice halted against minors. When Biden took office in January 2021, he ordered that unaccompanied children be exempt from the rule, and just 20 youths have been turned away in the 14 months since, according to CBP data.
But Title 42 enforcement for other migrants has actually increased under Biden: CBP reported that Border Patrol expelled 76,298 people at the Southwest border under Title 42 in January and the Office of Field Operations expelled another 2,188 at the southern border that month.
Title 42 was used to expel 2,500 people at the Yuma port of entry in January and 15,469 people at the Tucson port of entry, the most of any Southwest port of entry that month, according to CBP.
But on March 4, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas ruled that the CDC had not provided an adequate explanation as to why unaccompanied children should be treated differently from other migrants and exempted from Title 42. The opinion said that COVID-19 should still be a priority when making immigration policy, writing “there should be no disagreement that the current immigration policies should be focused on stopping the spread of COVID-19.”
The court gave the CDC seven days to either draft a better explanation for the unaccompanied minors policy, or start applying Title 42 to them again.
That explanation came Saturday, when the CDC argued that expelling unaccompanied children is not necessary to protect public health currently, as coronavirus cases are decreasing across the country. It also said there was a history of excluding unaccompanied children from certain immigration policies.
“Because of their vulnerabilities, (unaccompanied children) are generally treated differently than other individuals apprehended and processed at the border under the immigration laws,” the notice said.
While they welcomed the official termination of the policy for minors, advocates argued that Title 42 in general has been misused by border officials.
“For two years since the pandemic began, Customs and Border Protection officials at the southern border have been rapidly deporting individuals who arrive and request asylum after crossing the border, as well as individuals who are simply crossing the border and seeking a better life in the United States,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy counsel at the American Immigration Council.
Reichlin-Melnick said the policy should not be needed at a time when “almost no places in the United States have any COVID restrictions left, the vaccine is widely available, hundreds of millions of Americans have gotten vaccinated and protected themselves against serious illness or death from the virus.”
“So the rationale for continuing to send people potentially to their deaths rather than allowing them to seek asylum just to protect us from COVID, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.
With the pandemic no longer an excuse for that they called bad immigration policy, advocates said they hope that ending Title 42 for unaccompanied children signals the CDC’s willingness to end the rule altogether.
“The reality is that we have been subjecting migrants at the border to far more stringent health restrictions than pretty much anyone else,” Reichlin-Melnick said. “The CDC is realizing it’s not necessary anymore; after two years, it may finally be time for Title 42 to end.”