NEW ORLEANS ( Associated Press) — Pandemic-related restrictions on immigrants seeking asylum at the southern border of the United States must remain in place, a judge ruled Friday in an order blocking the Joe Biden administration’s plan to pick them up next week.
The Justice Department has indicated the government will appeal, but the ruling virtually ensures the restrictions won’t end Monday as planned. A delay would be a blow to activists who say the right to seek asylum is being violated, and a relief to some Democrats who fear the expected rise in illegal crossings will put them on the defensive in a midterm election year that it’s hard already.
In the Mexican city of Tijuana, Yesivet Evangelina Aguilar, 34, covered her face with her hands and sobbed when she learned of the decision from an Associated Press reporter. “I feel like there is no hope anymore,” said Aguilar, who fled the Mexican state of Guerrero nearly a year ago after her brother was killed. “It feels so bad.”
US authorities prevented Aguilar from applying for asylum when she and her 10-year-old daughter showed up at the Tijuana-San Diego port of entry nine months ago. On Friday she rested in a tent at the Ágape Misión Mundial shelter, where a large number of migrants camp. Some have been there for months or years. Aguilar’s life while she waits has been not only boring, but also dangerous. On Thursday night, a migrant was hit in the neck by a stray bullet from a shootout outside the shelter.
Since March 2020, the United States has expelled migrants more than 1.9 million times under the so-called Title 42, a public health provision that denies them the possibility of applying for asylum on the grounds of preventing the spread of COVID-19. , although it is a right under US law and international treaties.
U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays of Lafayette, Louisiana, ordered the restrictions remain in place while a lawsuit led by Arizona and Louisiana, joined by 22 other states, is pending in court.
Summerhays ruled that the Biden administration failed to follow administrative procedures that require public notice and a comment period on the plan to end the restrictions. And he said the plaintiff states argued they would suffer harm if the restrictions were lifted.
The judge cited what he said were the government’s own predictions that lifting the restrictions would likely triple border crossings, to as many as 18,000 daily. That, he added, would result in more migrants being processed at crowded sites where contagious diseases can spread. “The record also includes evidence supporting the plaintiff states’ position that such an increase in border crossings would increase their spending on health care and educational services. These costs are not recoverable,” Summerhays wrote.
The White House said it disagrees with the ruling but will abide by it pending appeal. “The authority to set public health policy at the national level should rest with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and not with a district court alone,” said presidential press secretary Karine Jean-Jane. Pierre, in a statement.
Now the case goes to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, which has already ruled against important policies of the Biden administration in the past. That court is dominated by Republican nominees, including six nominated by former President Donald Trump, who also named Summerhays.
Title 42 primarily affects migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, many of whom have been waiting in Mexican border towns after the US government denied them the right to seek asylum. The Mexican government has agreed to accept migrants from those three Central American countries who are rejected by the United States, and last month it also began accepting limited numbers of Cubans and Nicaraguans.
Some 15 migrants crossed the Rio Grande (or Rio Grande) from Mexico into Eagle Pass, Texas, following Friday’s ruling. Among them were Nicaraguans who were unaware of Title 42 and were pleased that in general their compatriots do not apply this policy.
Title 42 is the second major Trump-era policy to deter asylum at the southern border of the United States to be struck down by Biden and revived by a Trump-appointed judge.
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the decision.
“Title 42 could only be used for public health purposes, but the states that brought this lawsuit only seem to care about COVID restrictions when they involve asylum seekers, and are using the case as a clear attempt to run the border.” Lee Gelernt said. “That hypocrisy should not be rewarded.”
Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Ruiz, chairman of the Hispanic Caucus, called the ruling “outrageous, ridiculous, and erodes our asylum system.”
But Republican congressmen praised the judge’s decision.
“The courts are doing things right again,” said Senator Kevin Cramer.
Even some in Biden’s party backed maintaining the pandemic restriction.
“Today’s decision does not change the fact that there is a crisis on the border and there must be a detailed plan that can be implemented before Title 42 is lifted,” said Arizona Sen. Mark Kelley, who is seeking re-election.
Last month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments about whether to authorize the government to force asylum seekers to wait in Mexico for their hearings in US immigration courts. That case, challenging a policy called “Remain in Mexico,” originated in Amarillo, Texas. The policy was reinstated in December by court order and remains in effect pending litigation.
Spagat reported from Eagle Pass, Texas. Associated Press reporters Julie Watson in Tijuana, Mexico, and Alan Fram and Mike Balsamo in Washington contributed to this report.