WASHINGTON — In what could be the first step in unraveling the Trump administration's policy of deporting undocumented immigrant children without an asylum hearing during the COVID-19 crisis, a federal judge temporarily halted the deportation of a 16-year-old Honduran boy who was scheduled to be flown back to his home country on Wednesday.
Judge Emmett Sullivan ordered that the boy, who goes by the initials J.B.B.C. in the case, will not be deported before 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday as a lawsuit challenging the administration's policy moves forward.
J.B.B.C. came to the U.S. to join his father, after both suffered persecution in their native country of Honduras, his lawyers said.
Ordinarily, he would have been placed into the custody of Health and Human Services until he could rejoin his father and proceed with his case for asylum. But since March 21, when the Trump administration began using its Title 42 authority to restrict immigration to protect public health, children like J.B.B.C. have been deported before they can reunite with relatives or seek asylum, regardless of whether they have symptoms of COVID-19.
The United Nations High Commission on Refugees estimated in late May that more than 1,000 immigrant children who arrived in the U.S. unaccompanied had been fast-tracked for deportation, often before family members in their home countries have been notified to receive them.
Lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union arguing the case said the government is applying Title 42 too broadly in order to accomplish its own immigration policy goals.
In a court filing, they said, "the Administration's use of Title 42 is a transparent end-run around Congress's considered decision to provide protection to children and others fleeing danger even where communicable disease is a concern — and to address that concern through the use of testing and quarantines, not deportations."
Sullivan previously struck down then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions' asylum policies and recently appointed a retired judge to argue the case against former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn after the Justice Department dropped its prosecution.
But Sullivan may not be the judge who oversees the case of deported children during COVID-19 going forward. In his motion, filed late Tuesday, he said he would "contact the assigned judge" to "stress the importance of resolving this case."
Jacob Soboroff reported from Los Angeles.