A number of asylum seekers wait near El Chaparral plaza in Tijuana, Mexico, on March 21. Some advocates argue that U.S. law says that any person in the United States or at the border has a right to seek asylum. File Photo by Ariana Drehsler/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 30 (UPI) -- An appeals court on Thursday suspended a federal judge's order that would have prevented President Joe Biden's administration from using part of a decades-old U.S. health law -- as former President Donald Trump also did -- to quickly expel migrants from the United States over concerns they might spread COVID-19.
The District of Columbia U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a ruling by District Judge Emmett Sullivan of the District of Columbia on Sept. 16 that granted an injunction to halt the use of the public health code known as Title 42.
The legal order blocking the use of Title 42 was granted in response to a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union and a group of civil rights organizations that said using the law violated migrants' rights to seek asylum in the United States.
The ACLU on Thursday condemned Biden administration's decision to appeal the injunction, calling Title 42 "a cruel policy that misuses public health to unjustly expel asylum seekers."
"If the Biden administration really wants to treat asylum seekers humanely, it must end this lawless policy NOW and withdraw its appeal," the ACLU said
Immediately upon the coronavirus pandemic's arrival in the United States in March 2020, Trump's government invoked Title 42 -- a clause of the 1944 Public Health Services Act that allows U.S. officials to prevent the "introduction of individuals during certain public health emergencies."
Trump used the law to issue a public health order that allowed for the rapid expulsion of migrants over concerns they might spread the virus within U.S. borders.
After taking office in January, Biden left Trump's order in place, altering only an enforcement provision to prevent unaccompanied minors from being expelled under the policy.
A group of Haitian migrants rest on a street in San Fernando, Tamaulipas state, Mexico, on September 17. Photo by Abraham Pineda-Jacome/EPA-EFE
In August, the CDC announced it would extend the use of Title 42 until it "determines that the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States from covered non-citizens has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health."
More than 1.1 million people have been expelled under Title 42 since the order was put into effect 19 months ago, according to data from U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
In April 2020, Doctors for America and Physicians for Human Rights condemned the use of the 1944 law in a letter to former CDC Director Robert Redfield. It was signed by more than 800 physicians who argued that Trump's use of the law had nothing to do with COVID-19.
"The decision to halt asylum processes 'to protect the public health' is not based on evidence or science," they wrote. "This order directly endangers tens of thousands of lives and threatens to amplify dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement Acting Director Tae Johnson, however, told a House subcommittee in May that the law has proven "critical" in the government's efforts to ensure social distancing at border facilities to contain the virus.
Despite the criticism against the order under Trump, the number of expulsions rose by more than 12% early this year after Biden took office. Some advocates acknowledge that Biden's motivation to use the order has been different than Trump's, but the results are illegal all the same.
"U.S. law says that any person in the United States or at the border with the United States has a right to seek asylum," said Olga Byrne, immigration director at the International Rescue Committee, according to ABC News.
A group of Haitian migrants search for routes to avoid being detained by Mexican authorities in the municipality of Tapachula, Chiapas State, Mexico, on September 16. File Photo by Juan Manuel Blanco/EPA-EFE
"The legal issue at hand is that there's nothing in the law that allows the government to expel [migrants] without any due process."
Biden's use of the Title 42 order has come under increased scrutiny in recent weeks as the U.S. government has used it to remove thousands of Haitian immigrants. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said last weekend that 4,000 have been expelled.
Responding to criticism from Democrats in Congress about Biden's use of the order, Mayorkas called it a "public health authority," and not an "immigration policy."
"It is exercised as the ... Centers for Disease Control, has ordered, in light of the arc of the pandemic," he said.
"The public has to remember that we are in the midst of a pandemic. The Delta variant caused a setback. More than 600,000 Americans have died. More than 40 U.S. Customs and Border Protection front-line personnel have lost their lives."
Biden's administration has received criticism recently over a video showing border agents on horseback chasing Haitian migrants. Mayorkas said he was "horrified" by the footage and the White House has promised an investigation.
A week ago, the U.S. Border Patrol said it's temporarily suspended the use of horses in dealing with migrants at the border in Del Rio, Texas.