The number of unauthorized crossing attempts by migrants at the southern border increased in July when President Donald Trump's administration used a controversial public health order to rapidly send them back, citing COVID-19 concerns, according to data released by Customs and Border Protection Thursday.
Last month, border agents conducted more than 35,000 rapid returns or "expulsions" of unauthorized migrants under the CDC's direction.
"We're trying to remove them as fast as we can to not put them in our congregate settings, to not put them into our system, to not have them remain in the United States for a long period of time, therefore increasing the exposure risk of everybody they come in contact with to include the work force of all those different entities that would be impacted," Mark Morgan, the acting CBP commissioner, told reporters Thursday.
Morgan said more than 90% of people subjected to the order were removed within two hours of their arrest by CBP. Others that qualified under the Convention Against Torture guidelines were referred to agents in citizenship and immigration services for humanitarian review.
Asked about plans to eventually end or scale back the order, Morgan deferred to the CDC.
"They will be the ones that make the decision ultimately from a public health perspective," Morgan said.
This week, government lawyers defended ICE's use of private hotels to hold minors before they're sent back under the order, after ICE was accused of violating a decades-old court agreement that sets requirements for immigrant minors in custody.
"DHS's use of hotels to house minors pending their expulsion pursuant to the Title 42 process comports with CDC's general guidance to detention facilities, which state that the ideal quarantine conditions are individual rooms with solid walls and a closed door," the government said in a Tuesday court filing, citing Title 42, the United States Code dealing with public health, social welfare and civil rights which CBP says grants them the authority to quickly send migrants back across the border without a hearing in immigration court.
Asked why the minors can't be housed at the Office of Refugee Resettlement while following social distancing measures -- the federal agency that typically houses unaccompanied minors and connects them with family or sponsors -- Morgan said the risk to public health is too great.
"If we introduce these individuals to ORR, we're defeating the entire purpose of Title 42," Morgan said. "We're still introducing these individuals into our system throughout and creating a greater exposure risk to the American people."
More than 180 immigrant advocacy organizations and human rights groups -- including Americans for Immigrant Justice, Center for Justice and International Law, Columbia Law School Immigrants' Rights Clinic and Freedom Network USA -- wrote to Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of Homeland Security, in April, urging him to end the practice.
"The Trump Administration has proposed to expand the national security bar for asylum to include certain infectious diseases as a national security threat. During this time of pandemic, it would bar asylum seekers from countries where COVID-19 is prevalent," Immigrant Legal Center tweeted Thursday.
The Uncage Reunite Families Coalition held a press conference Thursday morning to call on Arizona's congressional delegation to investigate the detention of unaccompanied minors at a Hampton Inn hotel in Phoenix.
Rep. Raquel Teran, D-Ariz., spoke at the presser and strongly criticized the Trump administration for its ill treatment of undocumented immigrant children. Teran cited major issues including the pandemic, systemic racism and the detainment of undocumented children, saying it all shows that the current administration is "[willing] to sacrifice children to further a heartless political agenda."
Eddie Chavez Calderon, the campaign organizer for Arizona Jews for Justice, spoke at the presser and called for advocacy groups to help migrant children, saying that action can be taken without government assistance. He also demanded that no children be deported by themselves.
"There is no moral high ground on this to counter," said Calderon. "This is simply an ugly smudge on who we are right now... this is about revolution both morally and communal."
Members of the URFC called the detainment a violation of basic human rights and the law, alleging that taxpayer dollars are being used to keep the children detained in hotels without taxpayers knowing the full extent of how their money is being spent.
The presser ended with a message asking citizens to call the House of Representatives to demand answers about the whereabouts of undocumented migrant children that have been deported and full reports about the conditions of the hotels where the children stayed.