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Top CDC official told Congress migrant expulsion policy was not needed to contain COVID

A former senior official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told a congressional committee that a border policy instituted last year to expel migrants and block them from requesting asylum was not needed to contain the spread of the coronavirus, according to a transcript released Friday.

Anne Schuchat, the second-highest ranking official at the CDC until her departure this spring, said the mass expulsions of migrants were approved by the Trump administration in March 2020 even though the unprecedented move lacked a sufficient public health rationale.

"The bulk of the evidence at that time did not support this policy proposal," Schuchat recently told investigators from the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, a House panel probing the Trump administration's response to the pandemic.

Schuchat's statements further corroborate that the border expulsions were authorized over objections from top public health officials at the CDC. CBS News and other news outlets reported last year that President Trump's political appointees pressured then-CDC Director Robert Redfield to green light the expulsions, despite the internal opposition.

The expulsion policy, known as Title 42, has been continued by the Biden administration, which also argues it is necessary to stop the coronavirus from spreading inside Border Patrol facilities. U.S. officials along the southern border have used Title 42 to carry out over 1.2 million expulsions since March 2020.

Schuchat told congressional investigators that Marty Cetron, the director for the CDC's Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, an office that typically oversees border-related public health measures, did not support invoking the Title 42 authority last spring.

Part of a group of 136 Guatemalans deported from San Luis Potosi state, Mexico walk upon their arrival at the Air Force Base in Guatemala City on August 26, 2021. Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

"But his view was that the facts on the ground didn't call for this from a public health reason, and that the decision wasn't being made based on criteria for quarantine. It may have been initiated for other purposes," Schuchat said. "So I don't think he was comfortable using his authority to do that because it didn't meet his careful review of what the criteria are."

At the time, Schuchat said, the CDC was focused on improving the conditions of facilities where migrants are held. The agency, she added, issued recommendations to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Administration for Children and Families, which cares for unaccompanied migrant children, to make the transfer of migrants "less problematic" during the pandemic.

CBS News reported in November 2020 that a Department of Health Human Services lawyer wrote the original order to authorize the expulsions after Cetron's office refused to be involved in the plan.

Representatives for the CDC did not respond to requests to comment on Schuchat's statements. 

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas has repeatedly rejected the notion that Title 42 is a border enforcement tool, saying there's a "public health imperative" for the expulsions. But he has acknowledged the policy does not allow migrants to request humanitarian protections enshrined in U.S. law.  

"Under Title 42, one doesn't even get to make a claim of credible fear. One is expelled and that is why as a matter of immigration policy, it is so vigorously opposed and quite frankly, why we do not embrace it as a matter of immigration policy," Mayorkas said at a forum last week.

While the Biden administration has continued the Title 42 expulsions, and issued its own order defending them, it has scaled them back, exempting unaccompanied children from the policy. In recent months, it has also processed most migrant families with children under immigration law and allowed them to seek asylum.

Most single adult migrants and some families, however, continue to be expelled to Mexico or their home countries without being allowed to see an immigration judge. In September, the last month with available statistics, U.S. border agents expelled migrants 102,000 times.

The Title 42 policy is currently being challenged in federal court by the American Civil Liberties Union, which argues the expulsions violate the rights of asylum-seekers. Three federal judges have already concluded public health law likely does not allow the government to summarily expel migrants. 

According to internal documents obtained by CBS News, the Biden administration planned to wind down the Title 42 expulsions of migrant families in July. As part of the plan, officials would offer coronavirus vaccines to all adult family members.

But the plan was scrapped by top White House officials, including Susan Rice, who feared that unwinding the border policy would increase the political pressure on the administration amid a 21-year high in migrant arrests and the spread of the Delta variant, according to Biden appointees. 

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