Salvadoran sisters Noeli, 15, and Valeria, 12, hoped to start an immigration case and reunite with their mother in Maryland after five years apart when they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in August with their brother, Josue, 23. But U.S. border agents quickly turned them back to Mexico.

Grabriela, 13, hoped to apply for asylum when she reached the Texas border in April, just as her mother had done years earlier when she fled gangs in El Salvador. But after being apprehended by U.S. officials, the girl was detained in a hotel and then placed on a deportation flight.

After waiting months in Mexico’s violence-plagued Ciudad Juárez for her U.S. court hearing, Elida allowed her 12-year-old son Gustavo to present himself to U.S. border officials, thinking he would be allowed to reunite with his grandfather in South Carolina. Instead, Gustavo, a largely non-verbal boy with physical and learning disabilities, was expelled to Guatemala alone.

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Prior to mid-March, these migrant children would have been housed in shelters and allowed to seek asylum or other forms of U.S. sanctuary with the help of lawyers. But their rapid expulsions from the U.S. are part of the Trump administration’s unprecedented efforts to use the COVID-19 pandemic as justification to sidestep legal protections for minors who arrive at America’s borders without documents.

By designating them public health threats who could spread the virus, the Trump administration has expelled at least 8,800 unaccompanied migrant children, some as young as 10, without a court hearing or asylum screening, circumventing safeguards Congress created to shield them from trafficking, exploitation and persecution.

In all, more than 204,000 of these expulsions have been carried out across the U.S.-Mexico border since March, according to government data. 


President Trump’s top immigration enforcement officials have portrayed the emergency policy as strictly based on public health and greenlighted by orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

However, the White House and senior advisor Stephen Miller aggressively pressured the CDC to implement the order, bypassing objections from experts at the agency who believed there was no public health basis to invoke a 1940s law to shutter U.S. borders to migrants, including asylum-seekers and children, three former Trump administration officials familiar with the discussions told CBS News. The officials were granted anonymity in order to speak frankly about internal deliberations.

“We were forced to do it,” one former official who worked on public health told CBS News. “We exhausted all of the options. We delayed. We slow-rolled. We flat out said there’s not a public health justification. We said no. And then we were told, ‘Do it.’ So, at the end of the day, your options are to resign in protest or sign it. And if you resign in protest, the next person is just going to do it anyways.”

According to two of the former officials, career experts at the CDC’s Division of Global Migration and Quarantine — which would have jurisdiction over border measures to contain the virus — refused to be involved in the expulsions order. Instead, these former officials said, the order was drafted by Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) lawyer Brian Stimson, a political appointee. An HHS spokesperson said “career and political attorneys” who serve as lawyers for the CDC were involved because the order was a “public health and legal matter.” 

After mounting White House pressure, including a call from Vice President Mike Pence, CDC Director Robert Redfield signed the directive, which took effect on March 20. Katie Miller, a spokeswoman for Pence who is married to Miller, denied that the vice president “directed the CDC on this issue.”

“It was one of many tough choices that we were forced to make, and ultimately the White House and their preference prevailed,” a second former public health official told CBS News. “Public health authority had never been used in this way. A lot of folks, myself included, felt that this was a misappropriation of that authority.”

CDC officials initially were able to “pare down” the order so that it would have to be reauthorized every 30 days. In May, after two renewals, the order was extended indefinitely. A subsequent order issued last month will be in place until the CDC director determines “the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States has ceased to be a serious danger.”

“I guarantee you, under this administration, it will never happen,” one of the former public health officials said. “It will take a new administration, a new director to come in and say, ‘This is BS, I’m pulling it.'”

For the first time, Joe Biden’s campaign on Sunday said the former vice president would order a review of the policy if elected. “A Biden Administration would direct the CDC and DHS to review this policy and make the appropriate changes to ensure that people have the ability to submit their asylum claims while ensuring that we are taking the appropriate COVID-19 safety precautions, as guided by the science and public health experts,” campaign spokesperson Pili Tobar told CBS News.

On March 27, seven days after the CDC order took effect, Chad Mizelle, the top lawyer at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), sent a memo to Ken Cuccinelli, the second-in-command at the department, proposing to further restrict asylum eligibility based on the pandemic, according to documents obtained by the group Human Rights First under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a statement provided by the White House, Redfield said “data pointed to a public health risk from COVID-19 to the illegal immigrants and the CPB employees at the border” when the expulsions policy was being discussed. “I determined it was in the public health interest, at that time, to issue the order and it was a decision I made as CDC Director,” Redfield added. “CDC continues to evaluate the situation on the border and our future decisions will also be led by the science and data at the border locations.”

A White House spokesman said the policy has “saved countless American lives by protecting border states, including Texas and Arizona, from having their hospitals overwhelmed and border patrol agents from infection.” Customs and Border Protection (CBP) also defended it.

“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determined that the introduction and spread of COVID-19 in CBP stations and temporary holding facilities presents a danger to illegal border crossers, our frontline agents and officers, doctors and nurses, and the American public,” the agency said in a statement to CBS News. “It would take just a small number of individuals with COVID-19 to infect a large number of detainees and CBP personnel and potentially overwhelm local healthcare systems along the border.”

Asked during an interview with CBS News in September why U.S. immigration officials couldn’t exclude unaccompanied children from the expulsions policy, Cuccinelli said, “You don’t gain the benefit of a public health order by filling it with exceptions.”

“The rules are clear. The circumstances are extraordinary due to COVID, even in addition to the fact that people are traveling illegally,” Cuccinelli said. “I don’t know why anyone would expect anything other than quick removal from this country when they cross knowingly, illegally, no matter what their age.”

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