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Top CDC scientist said COVID-era health policy used to expel migrants unfairly stigmatized them

The U.S. government's top public health expert on migration told Congress he refused to approve a policy allowing mass expulsions at the U.S.-Mexico border because he believed the measure, enacted by President Donald Trump and retained by President Joe Biden, unfairly stigmatized migrants as spreaders of COVID-19.

During an interview in May with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Dr. Marty Cetron called the policy, known as Title 42, a "wholesale border closure" that suspended the rights of migrants and "risked the misuse of a public health authority," according to a transcript

"I was concerned that there may be a motivation that was beyond the specific public health agenda," Cetron said during the closed-door interview, which has not been previously reported.

For over two decades, Cetron has been the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, which is charged with preventing communicable diseases from entering the U.S., including by overseeing the screening of immigrants, refugees and travelers.

Trump administration aides, including senior adviser Stephen Miller — not the CDC's public health experts — were involved in the effort to invoke Title 42, a late 19th century public health law that had only been used once before in U.S. history, Cetron said. Former senior CDC officials previously described Miller's role in pushing for the expulsions. (Before the coronavirus pandemic, Title 42 was last used in 1929 to stop ships from bringing passengers from the Philippines and China to U.S. ports during a meningitis outbreak.)

"It did not originate from CDC," Cetron told congressional investigators, saying he "refused" to sign an order to invoke Title 42 after his team did not find sufficient public health evidence to justify the move. "We could not substantiate that the threat was, quote/unquote, being addressed by this," he added.

When Cetron learned the Trump administration would invoke Title 42 to expel migrants and asylum-seekers en masse, he told then-CDC Direct Robert Redfield he wanted to be "excused" from the policy. On March 20, 2020, Redfield signed the order greenlighting the border expulsions, which continue to this day.

For more than two years, U.S. authorities along the southern border have used Title 42 to quickly expel migrants over 2.2 million times without considering their asylum claims, which is required under U.S. and international refugee law, according to government figures.

Venezuelan migrants cross the Rio Bravo between Mexico and the US
Venezuelan migrants cross the Rio Bravo to surrender to the American authorities on October 13. Christian Torres/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In his May interview, Cetron said there were alternative measures to Title 42, such quarantines, masking and testing, to mitigate coronavirus concerns along the border. He said using Title 42 could create stigma, citing previous pandemics during which specific groups were scapegoated without "evidence that supports that."

An "epidemic of disease," Cetron said "can be followed by an epidemic — an inappropriate epidemic of stigma and misrepresentation of where the problem is."

CBS News and other outlets reported in 2020 that Trump officials pressured the CDC to invoke Title 42, bypassing agency experts. Late last year, Anne Schuchat, who was the second-highest ranking CDC official, told congressional investigators Title 42 wasn't backed by the "bulk of the evidence."

Cetron's internal opposition to Title 42 undermines the CDC's public defense of the policy, which both the Trump and Biden administrations have defended as a pandemic tool designed to curb COVID-19 outbreaks in border facilities.

But beyond his concerns about a shoddy public health rationale and the stigma he worried migrants would suffer, Cetron feared that the use of Title 42 could undermine public health, saying it risked "[l]eaving unaccompanied minor children in camps at the mercy of many other both diseases and other consequential health risks."

Cetron's congressional interview reinforces the idea that the Trump administration used the pandemic for political ends — to slow the flow of migrants across the southern border. But it also raises questions about politics influencing public health decisions under Mr. Biden, who allowed the policy to continue, after pledging to "listen to the science" to fight COVID-19.

Kristen Nordlund, a CDC spokesperson, said the agency would "not be commenting" on Cetron's statements or on whether the Biden administration considered his views on Title 42 as it continued to enforce the policy for over a year. Nordlund said Cetron was currently serving as a senior CDC adviser, but that he planned to retire "soon." She said a new Division of Global Migration and Quarantine leader was "being recruited."

While the administration defended its use as necessary to protect public health, Biden officials privately viewed Title 42 as a key immigration control to deal with record migrant arrivals and fend off GOP attacks over a chaotic border, Biden appointees told CBS News.

"You have this very blunt tool like Title 42. It's very, very blunt, but you don't have great options otherwise," a Biden immigration policy appointee said, requesting anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Migrants board a US Border Patrol van after crossing into the US from Mexico through a gap in the border wall between Algodones, Mexico, and Yuma, Arizona, on May 16, 2022. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

In May, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, who had issued an order in August 2021 defending Title 42, said the border measure was no longer needed because of improving pandemic conditions, including increased vaccination rates in the U.S. and in migrants' home countries.

However, Republican-led states convinced a federal judge in Louisiana to block Title 42's termination, forcing officials to continue the expulsions. Under Mr. Biden, border officials have exempted several groups from Title 42, including unaccompanied children, Ukrainian refugees and some vulnerable asylum-seekers.

But the Biden administration has continued to carry out tens of thousands of expulsions monthly, and recently expanded Title 42 to start expelling Venezulean asylum-seekers under an agreement with Mexico, which previously only accepted the return of its citizens and Central American migrants.

Lee Gelernt, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who's asking a federal court to invalidate Title 42, said the U.S. government could've implemented "less restrictive" coronavirus mitigation steps, "without the need for the extraordinary step of expelling asylum-seekers to grave danger."

"We have always believed that Title 42 was not about public health but a pretext to close the border to desperate asylum seekers," Gelernt told CBS News.

Two former senior CDC officials confirmed Cetron's opposition to Title 42, noting the original order authorizing the migrant expulsions was written by a lawyer at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

"They were not comfortable with having any part of it," a former senior CDC official told CBS News, referring to Cetron and his team. "We knew the [Trump] administration and Stephen Miller, especifically, had wanted to do this from day one."

During the pandemic, multiple HHS lawyers were tasked by the Trump administration with drafting several CDC-related public health orders, including the use of Title 42, according to a former Trump administration official who requested anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. The source said the order also underwent an inter-agency review process.

On March 20, 2020, an HHS lawyer alerted Miller and other Trump administration immigration officials that the CDC was ready to publish the Title 42 order, according to internal emails obtained by American Oversight, a watchdog group. One by one, officials from the White House and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security thanked the HHS lawyer for his "yeoman's work."

"Agreed," Miller replied to the group, the emails show.

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