ICE is making sure migrant kids don’t have COVID-19, then expelling them to ‘prevent the spread’

A law enforcement official walks past a transport bus used to carry migrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody before the departure of a chartered plane from Brownsville South Padre International Airport in Brownsville on May 18, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Loren Elliott
A law enforcement official walks past a transport bus used to carry migrants in U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody before the departure of a chartered plane from Brownsville South Padre International Airport in Brownsville on May 18, 2019. Credit: REUTERS/Loren Elliott

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica’s Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

Since March, the Trump administration has pushed thousands of migrant children back to their home countries without legal screenings or protection, citing the risk that they could be carrying COVID-19 into the United States.

But by the time the children are boarded on planes home, they’ve already been tested for the virus — and proven not to have it.

Court documents, and information given by Immigration and Customs Enforcement to congressional staff last week, reveal that the Trump administration has agreed to test every child in its custody before sending them back to their home countries under the expulsion policy.

ICE’s comprehensive testing appears to undermine the rationale for the mass expulsion policy: that it is necessary to “prevent the introduction” of COVID-19 into the United States.

The Trump administration has argued that, because of the pandemic, it must circumvent protections built into immigration law for migrant children, which dictate they should be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services (and ultimately to sponsors in the U.S.) and given a chance to seek asylum. Administration officials have said that they can’t risk that infected children would spread COVID-19 through the system. Yet even after children test negative for the virus, they aren’t being allowed to access the usual protections.

The Trump administration has cited sections 265 and 268 of Title 42 of the U.S. Code, which allows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to order the exclusion of any person or thing that might introduce a disease into the United States. Citing that law, in March the CDC began barring the entry of anyone crossing into the U.S. without papers.

“The Trump administration’s claim that they need to summarily expel children because of COVID was always a pretext,” Lee Gelernt of the ACLU, who has represented children in lawsuits challenging the expulsion policy, told ProPublica. “If they are now actually testing and know the children do not have COVID, then the policy is that much more unjustified.”