Vice-President Pence ordered US borders closed after CDC consultants refused

New York, October 4

Vice-President Mike Pence in March directed the nation’s top disease control agency to use its emergency powers to effectively seal the US borders, overruling the agency’s scientists who said there was no evidence the action would slow the coronavirus, according to two former health officials.

The action has so far caused nearly 1,50,000 children and adults to be expelled from the country.

The top Centres for Disease Control and Prevention doctor who oversees these types of orders had refused to comply with a Trump administration directive saying there was no valid public health reason to issue it, according to three people with direct knowledge of the doctor’s refusal.

So Pence intervened in early March. The vice-president, who had taken over the Trump administration’s response to the growing pandemic, called Dr Robert Redfield, the CDC’s director, and told him to use the agency’s special legal authority in a pandemic anyway.

Also on the phone call were Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf. Redfield immediately ordered his senior staff to get it done, according to a former CDC official who was not authorised to discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The CDC’s order covered the US borders with both Mexico and Canada, but has mostly affected the thousands of asylum seekers and immigrants arriving at the southern border.

Public health experts had urged the administration to focus on a national mask mandate, enforce social distancing and increase the number of contact tracers to track down people exposed to the virus.

But Stephen Miller, a top aide to President Donald Trump who has been a vocal opponent of immigration, pushed for the expulsion order.

“That was a Stephen Miller special. He was all over that,” said Olivia Troye, a former top aide to Pence, who coordinated the White House coronavirus task force.              

She recently resigned in protest, saying the administration had placed politics above public health. “There was a lot of pressure on DHS and CDC to push this forward.”              

Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act gives federal health officials unique powers during a pandemic to take extraordinary measures to limit transmission of an infectious disease. One of those is the ability to stop the flow of immigration from countries with high numbers of confirmed cases, a legal authority the CDC does not normally have.

Public health experts say the administration’s pattern of dismissing science-based decision making in favor of political goals has endangered many, including President Donald Trump himself, who on Friday confirmed he and the first lady had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The decision to halt asylum processes ‘to protect the public health’ is not based on evidence or science,” wrote Dr Anthony. So, an international public health expert at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, in a letter to Redfield in April. “This order directly endangers tens of thousands of lives and threatens to amplify dangerous anti-immigrant sentiment and xenophobia.”               

 Since the order went into effect on March 20, nearly 1,50,000 people — including at least 8,800 unaccompanied children who are normally afforded special legal protections under a court settlement and federal law — have been sent back to their countries of origin without typical due process. Many have been returned to dangerous and violent conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

Pence’s spokeswoman Katie Miller, who is Stephen Miller’s wife, called the account of the phone call “false.” “Vice President Pence never directed the CDC on this issue,” she said in an email.

Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project described the order as “a complete bypass of the entire asylum system and (the) system protecting unaccompanied children.”   

“That is what the Trump administration has been trying to do for four years and they finally saw a window,” he added.

Miller started his campaign for the order by button-holing the coronavirus task force staff to try to get the issue on its agenda, according to Troye. The task force did not take the issue up immediately, said Troye. The administration had already passed a nonessential travel ban, which public health experts had largely supported. The CDC spurned Miller’s idea, too.

In early March the agency’s Division of Migration and Quarantine, led by Dr Martin Cetron, refused to support the order because there was not a strong public health basis for such a drastic move, according to three people with knowledge of his decision.

White House officials were undeterred. They turned to lawyers at CDC’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and US Customs and Border Protection. In a call with CDC’s senior leadership, attorneys for both agencies urged CDC to use its public health authority to turn people back at the borders. Border officials said they wanted to protect their agents, and American lives.

By mid-March, CDC’s scientists still refused to comply. That’s when Pence and Wolf called with the message to get it done and quickly.

An HHS lawyer then wrote the order and submitted it to Redfield, who reviewed it and signed it. Redfield declined to comment through a CDC spokesperson, because the order is currently in litigation.

“They forced us,” said a former health official involved in the process. “It is either do it or get fired,” Trump described the order as originating at CDC, when it had not. — AP

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