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Title 42 migrant expulsions had no basis in public health, says former CDC deputy director

CDC's Walensky and Schuchat testify in Senate - Washington
Nash Greg/Pool/ABACA/Nash Greg/Pool/ABACA via Reuters
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Principal Deputy Director Dr. Anne Schuchat removes her mask to answer a question during a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to examine the FY 2022 budget request for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. Photo by Greg Nash/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM

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A former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) official told congressional investigators that the decision to begin expelling migrants at the border under U.S. Health Code Title 42 during Trump’s tenure “wasn’t based on a public health assessment.”

Anne Schuchat, a former deputy director at the CDC, recently gave testimony before the Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis — a House panel probing the Trump administration's response to the pandemic. She described the discussions that took place before the implementation of the Title 42 order between the White House and the CDC at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under former president Trump at the time requested that the CDC’s head of the Division of Migration and Quarantine Martin Cetron sign the order, which would allow the government to expel migrants without due process for asylum seekers.

Because the CDC is tasked with protecting public health with “the least restrictive means possible” and because Cetron felt “facts on the ground didn’t call for this from a public health reason,” he refused to sign the order.

Schuchat said that at the time, Cetron believed “the decision wasn’t being made based on criteria for quarantine” and that “it may have been initiated for other purposes.”

In October, the Associated Press reported that it was former Vice President Mike Pence who then directly pressured the director of the CDC at the time, Robert Redfield, to sign the order.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

The Biden administration continues to use this order based on the U.S. health code to expel migrants, and has used it to expeditiously remove more individuals in 2021 than the Trump administration did during its own tenure.

Harold Koh, a senior legal adviser in the State Department, resigned over the use of Title 42 in a detailed legal memo earlier this year.

“I believe this Administration’s current implementation of the Title 42 authority continues to violate our legal obligation not to expel or return individuals who fear persecution, death, or torture,” the memo reads. “Lawful, more humane alternatives plainly exist.”

Related: Hope and despair in Del Rio as Biden administration begins expelling migrants from massive border encampment

DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas continues to defend Title 42 as a public health measure. In May, he told lawmakers that the order would be revoked “when there is no longer a public health imperative basis.”

"We are doing this out of a public health need. It is not an immigration policy,” he said at a White House briefing in September.

But Schuchat told congressional investigators on the House panel that “at that time, there was a lot more disease in the U.S. than south of the border. The focus on reducing spread on our side of the border was critically needed."

Schuchat said “no” when asked if the order was necessary to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S.

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Pablo De La Rosa is a Northern Tamaulipas-Rio Grande Valley native where he works as a writer and multimedia producer of stories from the Texas-Mexico border region.