The ACLU on Wednesday filed the first lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's decision to block many migrants from entering the country — including those requesting asylum — in the name of public health during the coronavirus pandemic.
The suit, filed in federal court in Washington, D.C., claims that the administration violated federal law by ordering blanket denials and immediate deportations of some migrants trying to enter the U.S. through its southern border with Mexico and its northern border with Canada. While federal law allows for the government to screen, quarantine and expel would-be migrants for public health reasons, it does not, according to the lawsuit, allow for the complete elimination of the asylum system or other forms of humanitarian relief.
In the first seven weeks that the public health restrictions were in place, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents turned back more than 20,000 migrants trying to cross the southern border. CBP has not updated that data since May 7, so it's unclear how many more migrants have been turned back since.
The move to restrict immigration based on public health grounds was part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to limit legal immigration in the early days of the pandemic. Officials have described the measures as necessary to prevent further spreading of the virus, pointing to similar actions by other countries as proof that the restrictions were necessary.
In an order implementing the public health restrictions, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention argued that limiting traffic across the land borders was necessary to protect federal agents who would have to process and house those migrants and anybody else those migrants encountered if they were released into the country.
"The public health risks of inaction are stark," CDC Director Robert Redfield wrote in his order. "They include transmission and spread of COVID-19 to CBP personnel, U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and other persons in the (ports of entry) and Border Patrol stations; further transmission and spread of COVID-19 in the interior; and the increased strain that further transmission and spread of COVID-19 would put on the United States healthcare system and supply chain during the current public health emergency."
As of Friday, more than 108,000 people have died in the U.S. after contracting the virus.
The lawsuit counters that the administration has created all kinds of exemptions to its travel bans that have allowed hundreds of thousands of people to continue traveling into the United States. U.S. citizens are allowed to cross the nation's land borders as are legal permanent residents. People traveling for medical or educational purposes, agricultural workers, truck drivers and even professional athletes are exempt from the ban.
The fact that all those people are allowed to continue traveling into the U.S. from foreign countries with active COVID-19 outbreaks while asylum-seekers are barred from entering the country shows that public health is not the real reason for the restrictions, Gelernt said. He accused the government of using the pandemic as an excuse to accomplish it's long-held goal of drastically cutting all forms of legal immigration, especially from Latin America.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump policy blocking migrants over COVID-19 is illegal, suit claims