Imanol Luján, 17, left Honduras without telling his family. He had heard from relatives and friends about the process of migrating to the U.S., and his ultimate goal was to seek asylum and live with his sister in Massachusetts.
After crossing into Mexico in March, the coronavirus pandemic hit. Once Luján crossed the border into the U.S., he spent less than 10 days in the country before being deported back to Honduras.
"I wanted an opportunity," Luján told Telemundo News Investigates. He said he didn't have a credible fear interview to explain why he was seeking asylum nor did he see an immigration judge.
Last week a federal judge halted a similar deportation of an unidentified 16-year-old Honduran minor, hours before it was supposed to take place. The plaintiffs, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), argued that the government is violating the rights of migrant minors by not granting them an asylum hearing.
Like Luján, hundreds of unaccompanied minors have been deported before they could seek asylum or reunite with relatives. In late March, through its Title 42 authority, the Trump administration took measures to restrict immigration to protect public health during the pandemic.
The Border Patrol detained 2,938 unaccompanied minors in March and 734 in April. Under normal conditions, unaccompanied minors are transferred to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), an agency under Health and Human Services, that handles their care and placement.
The ACLU lawsuit claims unaccompanied minors have the right to be processed by ORR, be placed in a youth shelter and have an asylum hearing.
But amid the pandemic, only 1,852 unaccompanied minors were transferred to ORR in March—mostly before the new pandemic measures took effect—and 62 were transferred in April, according to data that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent to Telemundo News Investigates.
The ACLU lawsuit says that nearly a thousand minors have been swiftly deported from the U.S. under the new measures. Telemundo News requested the updated figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) but have not received them.
In the U.S., then sent back
In the third week of April, Luján crossed the U.S. border; two women and their respective children whom he met in Mexico also crossed with him. Near McAllen, Texas, Border Patrol agents detained them and asked for documentation.
Luján showed them his birth certificate. The group was then divided and put in different vehicles, he said, and he arrived at an immigration station where his fingerprints were taken. He recalled the station was surrounded by a fence, "like a prison," he said, and he shared a cell with about a dozen minors, between 15 and 17 years old. They slept on the floor and were given nylon blankets, he said. The teens were from Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador. Inside the cell, there was no social distancing, Luján said, but they were given masks and gel sanitizer.
Four days later he was taken to a hotel, where he shared a room with another Honduran teen; they spent the day watching television, and immigration agents brought them three meals a day to their room. Luján says he felt well treated there.
"I asked for calls but they told me no, to wait for my moment," said Luján. For those 10 days, his family did not know his whereabouts.
Luján said he was not shown any documents nor was he allowed to request asylum. He said that agents told him if he kept on insisting, his parents would be detained for allowing him to travel alone to the U.S. CBP did not comment on Luján's specific allegations.
"They put us on a bus and they didn't tell us anything, until we were there, at the airport." The young man says he was deported on April 24 by plane, along with hundreds of other Hondurans, all wearing face masks.
Upon arriving in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Luján said he was tested for the coronavirus and it came back negative.
Luján's case is similar to what's described in the ACLU lawsuit. The group claims that the 16-year-old minor, also from Honduras, was first at a detention center and then in a hotel and was not allowed to request asylum.
“The Administration has sought numerous regulatory mechanisms to prevent non-citizens from seeking protection in this country, but the process through Title 42 under discussion here goes beyond any of those efforts because it leaves almost no open avenue to seek protection," stated the ACLU.
A group of 40 public health experts in May sent a letter to the Trump Administration urging the administration to halt immediate deportations and instead hand over unaccompanied minors to relatives or guardians in the country.
Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan said in March that the entry of undocumented immigrants "can potentially expose the United States to transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious diseases." The Government considers that border stations to process migrants can be a source of contagion.
Under that directive, border agents are deporting migrants immediately to their last country of transit - usually Mexico. If that is not possible, the Government says that "CBP works with partners from other agencies to safely remove the person to their country of origin and keep the person detained for the shortest possible time. " Unaccompanied minors are part of that group.
The ACLU alleges that existing immigration laws state that unaccompanied minors seeking protection must be provided with the right to seek asylum and should not be automatically deported "even if they have a contagious disease."
CBP spokesperson Matthew Dyman said that all migrants, including minors, who have been detained may be subject to immediate deportations due to the risk of carrying contagious diseases.
"CBP works closely with their countries of origin to transfer them into the custody of their governments and reunite them with their families quickly and safely, whenever possible," he said.