Federal agents are expelling asylum seekers as young as 8 months from the border, citing COVID-19 risks

A father, right, and his son, who was detained in an American hotel and faced expulsion to Honduras. |      Carolina Guerrero for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica
A father, right, and his son, who was detained in an American hotel and faced expulsion to Honduras. | Carolina Guerrero for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica

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A teenage girl carrying her baby arrived at the U.S. border this summer and begged for help. She told federal agents that she feared returning to Guatemala. The man who raped her she said had threatened to make her “disappear.”

Then, advocates say, the child briefly vanished — into the custody of the U.S. government, which held her and her baby for days in a hotel with almost no outside contact before federal officers summarily expelled them from the country.

Similar actions have played out along the border for months under an emergency health order the Trump administration issued in March. Citing the threat of COVID-19, it granted federal agents sweeping powers to almost immediately return anyone at the border, including infants as young as 8 months. Children are typically entitled to special protections under the law, including the right to have their asylum claims adjudicated by a judge.

Under this new policy, the administration is not deporting children -- a proceeding based on years of established law that requires a formal hearing in immigration court.

It is instead expelling them -- without a judge’s ruling and after only a cursory government screening and no access to social workers or lawyers, sometimes not even their family, while in U.S. custody. The children are not even granted the primary registration number by which the Department of Homeland Security tracks all immigrants in its care, making it “virtually impossible” to find them, Efrén C. Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, wrote in a court declaration arguing that the practice is illegal.

Little is known about how the process works, but published government figures suggest almost all children arriving at the border are being rapidly returned.