The Trump administration on Tuesday (May 19) indefinitely extended its practice of immediately removing most asylum seekers and other migrants along the southern border in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Time reports. A leading U.S. health official explained that the previously short-term order needs to continue in order to keep the country safe from the coronavirus. 

The order, which was issued by U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr. Robert Redfield, allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officials to immediately remove migrants attempting to enter the U.S. According to Time, the administration’s rationale is that doing so will help curb the spread of COVID-19.

Reports Time:

President Donald Trump’s administration issued the initial 30-day order in March, and it was extended for another month in April. The new version notably has no fixed end date, though it says the CDC will review public health data every 30 days to ensure it is still necessary.

…Under the policy, CBP has been sending Mexican and Central American migrants they encounter along the southwestern border back to Mexico in about two hours. It is turning people from other countries over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for rapid repatriation, removing people who might have remained in the country for months, or even years, to pursue asylum claims.

Critics of the policy argue that Trump officials are “using health as a pretext to deny people the right to seek asylum and to enact immigration policies aimed at appealing to supporters of the president in an election year,” Time reports. 

Andrea Flores, deputy director of immigration policy for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told Time this administration is pushing a much darker agenda. “Trump’s goal is not to protect our health,” she told the news outlet. “It’s to sow division and advance his political agenda.”

“This new extension of the CDC order will end U.S. refugee and child protections at the border indefinitely, endangering rather than saving lives,” Eleanor Acer, senior director for refugee protection at nonpartisan group Human Rights First, told Time. “There is little doubt that the Trump administration will wield this indefinite ban to expel and block asylum-seekers and children for many months or longer, possibly until this administration is no longer in office.”

Redfield made it clear on Tuesday that the extension of the new border restrictions will last until “the danger of further introduction of COVID-19 into the United States has ceased to be a serious danger to the public health,” Time reports.