Top CDC scientist says COVID-era health policy used to deport migrants unfairly stigmatizes them

The U.S. government’s top public health expert on migration told Congress he refused to approve a policy allowing mass deportations at the U.S.-Mexico border because he believes the measure, introduced by President Donald Trump and supported by President Joe Biden, unfairly stigmatizes migrants as spreading COVID-19.

During an interview in May with the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, Dr. Marty Setron called the policy known as Title 42“massive border closures” that suspend migrants’ rights and “risk abuse by a public health authority,” according to a transcript.

“I was concerned that there might be a motivation that was outside of the specific public health program,” Cetron said during the closed-door interview, which has not been previously reported.

For more than two decades, Cetron has been director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Division of Global Migration and Quarantine, which is charged with preventing the entry of infectious diseases into the United States, 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 — have been involved in efforts to invoke Title 42, a late 19th-century public health law that has only been used once in the history of US, Cetron said. Previous senior CDC officials described Miller’s role in pushing for expulsion. (Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Title 42 was last used in 1929 to stop ships from carrying passengers from the Philippines and China to US ports during a meningitis epidemic.)

“This did not originate with the CDC,” Setron told congressional investigators, saying he “refused” to sign an order invoking Title 42 after his team did not find enough public health evidence to justify the move. “We couldn’t prove that the threat was, quote/unquote, addressed by that,” he added.

When Cetron learned that the Trump administration would invoke Title 42 to deport migrants and asylum seekers en masse, he told then-CDC Direct Robert Redfield that he wanted to be “excused” of the policy. On March 20, 2020, Redfield signed the order giving the green light to deportations along the border that continue to this day.

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

Venezuelan migrants cross the Rio Bravo between Mexico and the US
Venezuelan migrants cross the Rio Bravo to surrender to US authorities on October 13.

Cristian Torres/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In his May interview, Cetron said there are alternative measures to Title 42, such as quarantines, masking and testing, to mitigate coronavirus concerns along the border. He said the use of Title 42 could create a stigma, citing previous pandemics in which certain groups were scapegoated without “evidence to support it.”

“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, Trump officials have pressured the CDC to invoke Title 42, bypassing the agency’s experts. Late last year, Ann Schuchat, who was the CDC’s second-highest-ranking official, said congressional investigators Title 42 was not supported by “the preponderance 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 defended as a pandemic tool designed to contain outbreaks of COVID-19 at border facilities.

But beyond his concerns about the shoddy public health rationale and the stigma he worried migrants would bear, Cetron feared that using Title 42 could undermine public health, saying it risks “[l]leaving unaccompanied minors in camps at the mercy of many other diseases and other resulting health risks.”

Cetron’s interview in Congress reinforces the idea that the Trump administration has used the pandemic for political purposes — 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 has allowed the policy to continue after pledging to “listen to the science” to fight COVID-19.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the CDC, said the agency “will not comment” on Cetron’s statements or whether the Biden administration considered his views on Title 42 as it continued to enforce the policy for more than a year. Nordlund said Cetron currently serves as a senior adviser to the CDC, but that he plans to retire “soon.” She said a new head of global migration and quarantine 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 on a chaotic border that Biden appointed said CBS News.

“You have this very harsh tool like Title 42. It’s very, very harsh, but you don’t have a lot of options otherwise,” said a Biden immigration policy appointee, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

Migrants board a U.S. Border Patrol van after crossing into the U.S. 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 issued an order in August 2021 protecting Section 42, said the border measure was no longer necessary because of improving pandemic conditions, including increased vaccination rates in the U.S. and in the home countries of the migrants.

Republican-led states, however, persuaded a federal judge in Louisiana to block an end to Title 42, forcing officials to continue deportations. Under Mr. Biden’s administration, border officials have released several Title 42 groups, including unaccompanied children, Ukrainian refugees and some vulnerable asylum seekers.

But the Biden administration continues to carry out tens of thousands of deportations a month and more recently extended Section 42 to begin expelling asylum seekers from Venezuela under an agreement with Mexico, which previously only accepted the return of its citizens and Central American migrants.

Lee Gelernt, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is asking a federal court to strike down Title 42, said the US government could have implemented “less restrictive” steps to mitigate the coronavirus “without the emergency step being necessary for expelling the asylum-seekers into grave peril.”

“We’ve always believed that Title 42 is not about public health, it’s 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 that the original order authorizing the deportation of migrants was written by an attorney at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

“They didn’t feel comfortable participating in it,” a former senior CDC official told CBS News, referring to Cetron and his team. “We knew [Trump] the administration, and Stephen Miller in particular, 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 has also gone through an inter-agency review process.

On March 20, 2020, an HHS lawyer warned Miller and other Trump administration immigration officials that the CDC was ready to release 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 attorney for his “yeoman’s work.”

“Agreed,” Miller replied to the group, the emails show.

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