Civil rights orgs sue Trump administration over public health code expulsions

Lawsuit: COVID-19 used to deny immigrants due process

In what could be a challenge to the use of public health laws to deny asylum to immigrants, the American Civil Liberties Union, Texas Civil Rights Project, and others have filed a federal lawsuit against the Trump administration.

Filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington, attorneys for the ACLU, TCRP, and others argue that G.Y.J.P., the initials for a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador, was denied asylum without due process.

“The American Civil Liberties Union, Texas Civil Rights Project, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Oxfam have filed a legal challenge to the Trump administration’s order restricting immigration at the border based on an unprecedented and unlawful invocation of the Public Health Service Act, located in Title 42 of the U.S. Code,” the release from ACLU stated.

Attorneys for G.Y.J.P. say a new order from the Trump administration allows for the removal of unaccompanied minors without due process — even in the event the child shows no signs of COVID-19 and has a valid request for asylum. In this case, declaring a fear of returning to their home country.

The filing states that the girl’s mother, a former police officer, was targeted by Salvadoran gangs after she refused to cooperate with them.

“Forced to quickly flee for her life, G.Y.J.P.’s mother was granted legal protection by the United States and now lives here lawfully. The girl sought to join her mother when the gangs began threatening her life,” the release stated.

The filing outlines that when the minor child arrived in the United States, she declared her fear of return; and that her mother was legally present in the country, but, the filing states officials did not contact her mother and simply removed the girl to El Salvador without a hearing, where she has gone into hiding.

Under basic and established immigration statutes, the girl should have been given shelter in a government facility until she could be reunited with her mother.

According to ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, the use of public health laws to send asylum seekers back to their countries of origin without due process puts the aforementioned children in a perilous position.

“The Trump administration is hiding behind COVID-19 as a way to send children back to grave danger,” Gelernt said. “Like Trump’s horrendous family separation policy, the courts should conclude this latest attack on children is illegal.”

The lawsuit is requesting the courts to declare the use of the public health order against G.Y.J.P. to be unlawful and allow her to return to the U.S. to have her asylum request heard.

Karla M. Vargas, a senior attorney with TCRP, called the administration’s decision to send G.Y.J.P. back to El Salvador, akin to destroying basic protections for children.

“In our name, the government used a dog to chase a girl into the river and never even bothered to check if she had a mother. Then sent her back to a country where she fears being killed. The administration’s racist agenda to end asylum for refugees means dismantling basic protections for the most vulnerable children in the world,” Vargas said.

The main contention is over the administration’s use of the public health code, or Title 42 of the U.S. Code, which are provisions the attorneys argue do not give authorization to expel immigrants.

“Title 42 does not permit expulsions of non-citizens who are in the United States, nor does it legally allow the removal of children. Besides violating U.S. immigration law, G.Y.J.P.’s expulsion also violates the nation’s international obligations to protect people fleeing persecution and torture,” the release states.

Jamie Crook, Center for Gender & Refugee Studies director of litigation, said the order to remove the girl was illegal.

“The pandemic does not absolve the Trump administration of its legal obligations to children like G.Y.J.P. Numerous countries have shown us that it is possible to protect public health while continuing to uphold the rights of refugees,” Crook said in the release.

On Tuesday, in a similar case, a federal judge in Houston temporarily stopped the expulsion of a 16-year-old teenage boy from Honduras — one day before he was set to be sent back to his country under the same public health order.

The 16-year-old teenager is also represented by the ACLU and other civil rights advocate groups.