The Trump administration continues to find new ways to jeopardize the lives and safety of migrant children and their families. Lawyers representing migrant children across the United States, as well as government officials, are accusing the federal government of using the coronavirus pandemic as a reason to keep detained kids in custody instead of releasing them to their waiting sponsors, The Los Angeles Times reports. 

The LA Times reports:

Trump administration attorneys have argued in court that children are safer from COVID-19 in custody — even as the government quietly ramps up efforts to deport them. In recent weeks, officials have pulled scores of children and parents from detention in secretive operations to remove them from the U.S., according to lawyers, migrants’ affidavits and the receiving countries. Some were sick. A number were challenging administration policies in court.

Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the agency charged with managing the detention of unaccompanied minors, insist the government has not orchestrated any immigration policy changes during the pandemic that would directly impact migrant children and their guardians. “HHS is a child welfare agency, not a law enforcement agency,” spokesman Mark Weber told the Times. “If there is a delay in unification, it is for public health reasons.”

Data, however, suggests otherwise. Reporting from the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) shows that the Trump administration “has cut the population of detained kids and families by about 2,400” since a national emergency was declared in March over the coronavirus. The release of children to their sponsors has nearly stalled completely during the same time period, according to the Times. 

It continues:

After the administration essentially sealed the U.S. border in March as part of its coronavirus response, few new children and families have entered the system: The number of unaccompanied migrant children turned over to the refugee resettlement office has dropped roughly 97%.

At the same time, ORR has released far fewer kids to sponsors than in previous months, and those left behind are being held longer.

Lawyers across the U.S. accuse ORR of coordinating with ICE to target detained children for removal. “Just as all of this craziness happened with the coronavirus,” A’Kiesha Soliman, a lawyer with the unaccompanied minors program at Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services in El Paso, Texas, told The Times, “it seems like they’re ramping up deportations of children who we’d normally have more time to find relief for.”

Federal coronavirus restrictions have deeply impacted all people seeking asylum at the southern border. In fact, only “two people seeking humanitarian protection at the southern border have been allowed to stay” in the U.S. since March 21, according to unpublished U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data obtained by The Washington Post.

The federal government has halted due-process rights for migrants amid the pandemic, all while turning away “more than 20,000 unauthorized border-crossers to Mexico under a provision of U.S. code known as Title 42,” The Post reports.

Lucas Guttentag, an immigration-law scholar who served in the Obama administration and now teaches at Stanford and Yale universities, spoke to The Post about the Trump administration’s rampant mistreatment of migrant children, their families, and all asylum-seekers. He said tightened border measures amid the pandemic “are designed to pay lip service” to U.S. law and international treaty obligations “without providing any actual protection or screening.” 

“The whole purpose of asylum law is to give exhausted, traumatized and uninformed individuals a chance to get to a full hearing in U.S. immigration courts, and this makes that almost impossible,” Guttentag said. “It’s a shameful farce.”