Judge orders US to stop expelling children who cross border

FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a migrant from Honduras pass a child to her father after he jumped the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico. As of this week, the ACLU has filed nearly 400 lawsuits and other legal actions against the Trump administration, some meeting with setbacks but many resulting in important victories. Of the lawsuits, 174 have dealt with immigrant rights, targeting the family separation policy, detention and deportation practices, and the administrations repeated attempts to make it harder to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border.  (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 3, 2019, file photo, a migrant from Honduras pass a child to her father after he jumped the border fence to get into the U.S. side to San Diego, Calif., from Tijuana, Mexico. As of this week, the ACLU has filed nearly 400 lawsuits and other legal actions against the Trump administration, some meeting with setbacks but many resulting in important victories. Of the lawsuits, 174 have dealt with immigrant rights, targeting the family separation policy, detention and deportation practices, and the administrations repeated attempts to make it harder to seek asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border. (AP Photo/Daniel Ochoa de Olza, File) (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

HOUSTON – A federal judge on Wednesday ordered the Trump administration to stop expelling immigrant children who cross the southern border alone, halting a policy that has resulted in thousands of rapid deportations of minors during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan issued a preliminary injunction sought by legal groups suing on behalf of children whom the government sought to expel before they could request asylum or other protections under federal law.

The Trump administration has expelled at least 8,800 unaccompanied children since March, when it issued an emergency declaration citing the coronavirus as grounds for barring most people crossing the border from remaining in the United States.

Border agents have forced many people to return to Mexico right away, while detaining others in holding facilities or hotels, sometimes for days or weeks. Meanwhile, government-funded facilities meant to hold children while they are placed with sponsors have thousands of unused beds.

Sullivan's order bars only the expulsion of children who cross the border unaccompanied by a parent. The government has expelled nearly 200,000 people since March, including adults, and parents and children traveling together.

“This policy was sending thousands of young children back to danger without any hearing,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Like so many other Trump administration policies, it was gratuitously cruel and unlawful.”

The Justice Department did not immediately say whether it would appeal. It has appealed another federal judge's order barring the use of hotels to detain children.

The incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden has not directly said whether it will keep trying to expel immigrants under public-health authority. Biden is expected to roll back several Trump administration policies restricting asylum as part of a broader shift on immigration.