Gov't Can't Deport Migrant Teen Over COVID-19 Ban, For Now

By Khorri Atkinson
Law360 is providing free access to its coronavirus coverage to make sure all members of the legal community have accurate information in this time of uncertainty and change. Use the form below to sign up for any of our weekly newsletters. Signing up for any of our section newsletters will opt you in to the weekly Coronavirus briefing.

Sign up for our Immigration newsletter

You must correct or enter the following before you can sign up:

Select more newsletters to receive for free [+] Show less [-]

Thank You!

Law360, Washington (June 24, 2020, 4:46 PM EDT) -- A D.C. federal judge extended an order Wednesday temporarily blocking the Trump administration from deporting an unaccompanied minor to Honduras, ruling that a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention coronavirus border restriction rule improperly denied him protection under federal immigration laws.

U.S. District Judge Carl Nichols ruled from the bench that the government is prohibited from expelling the 16-year-old boy apprehended on June 4 as the lawsuit, brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and others on behalf of the teen and his father, continues to play out in court. This is the first legal challenge to the administration's border expulsions announced in March aimed at combating the spread of the coronavirus.

The judge agreed with the teen's central argument that the CDC had likely exceeded its authority in issuing the public health declaration preventing asylum-seekers and children at U.S. borders from entering the country. According to Judge Nichols, a Trump appointee, the declaration ignores long-standing humanitarian protections enshrined by Congress for minors and vulnerable foreigners fleeing persecution and violence in their home countries.

"The court, in addition, does not believe that the CDC director is likely entitled to the Chevron deference" to exclude migrants already in the country, Judge Nichols said. The Chevron deference is a U.S. Supreme Court precedent that suggests when courts must defer to executive agencies about the interpretation of federal laws.

Moreover, this case involves a minor who does not have COVID-19 or any symptoms of the virus and therefore seemingly posed no threat to the well-being of others, the judge added. The teen, referred to by his initials J.B.B.C., has demonstrated he would be irreparably harmed if the court denies his request and allows deportation to proceed, the judge later explained. 

"At this point, he [has been] apprehended well more than 15 days ago. So to the extent he may have had COVID-19, any potential harm would have occurred already from his presence in the United States," Judge Nichols reasoned. "And more generally, while the court understands that the government has an interest in administering, in the immigration context, the system and the rules relevant to reducing transmissions of COVID-19, the court concludes in the context of this matter that the balance of harm tips in the plaintiff's favor in light of the showing he has made under seal."

The judge earlier this month halted the teen's removal proceedings. Wednesday's extension order came after the judge heard more than 90 minutes of oral arguments via teleconference in the teen's bid for a temporary restraining order.

ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt, an attorney for the teen, argued that the administration has unlawfully sidestepped protections for vulnerable migrants. Gelernt also told the judge the teen had fled persecution and entered the U.S. near El Paso, Texas, to reunite with his relatives already in the U.S. His father is currently living in Texas with a pending asylum case. Border officers did not give the minor the chance to request asylum, according to the attorney. 

But U.S. Department of Justice attorney Jean Lin, who argued for the government, defended the declaration. Lin said it prioritizes public health and safety, and she maintained that Congress gave the executive branch the power to prohibit people from entering the country during an outbreak of a communicable disease. 

In court filings opposing the teen's TRO request, the DOJ rebutted that he was placed in removal proceedings after failing to meet his burden of establishing that he would be subjected to torture if returned to Honduras. 

After issuing his ruling from the bench, Judge Nichols noted his order is not intended to block the teen's deportation indefinitely because the "most appropriate procedural mechanism" is to "resolve fully and finally this case on the merits on an expedited basis."

"I expect this to move quickly," the judge stated before ordering attorneys for both sides to meet and confer on a briefing schedule for summary judgment.

In a statement responding to the order, Gelernt said Judge Nichols' ruling is "a critical first step in pushing back against the Trump administration's unprecedented and illegal attempt to remove children and asylum seekers under these public health laws. We are thrilled for this boy and his family."

The government did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection had used the declaration to swiftly send back nearly 1,000 children in March and April to their home countries, according to lawsuits challenging it. The CDC order has been extended indefinitely. 

CBP initially stated that unaccompanied migrant children would be exempted from the CDC order, which allowed border officers to summarily expel foreign citizens who cross or attempt to cross U.S. land borders without legal permission, regardless of whether they were seeking asylum or other protection.

But days later, the agency reversed course and announced that the children who entered the U.S. alone could be sent back under the CDC order. The order has come under fire by human rights and refugee advocates who say that it conflicts with the U.S.' obligations not to deport individuals to danger.

The U.S. has separately closed its land borders with Mexico and Canada to nonessential travel to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

J.B.B.C. is represented by Lee Gelernt, Celso Perez, Adrienne Pon Harrold, Arthur B. Spitzer, Cody H. Wofsy, Daniel Antonio Galindo, Morgan Russell and Stephen Bonggyun Kang of the American Civil Liberties Union and Jamie L. Crook of the Center for Gender and Refugee Studies. 

The government is represented by Jean Lin, Bradley Thomas Craigmyle and Kevin Matthew Snell of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division. 

The case is J.B.B.C. v. Wolf et al., case number 1:20-cv-01509, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

--Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Bruce Goldman.

For a reprint of this article, please contact

Useful Tools & Links

Related Sections

Case Information

Case Title

J. B. B. C. v. WOLF et al

Case Number



District Of Columbia

Nature of Suit

Other Statutory Actions


Carl J. Nichols

Date Filed

June 09, 2020


Government Agencies

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!