CDC Scientists Sidelined in Decision to Seal US Border

Published Oct 19, 2020

What happened: The White House ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to use their emergency powers to effectively seal the US borders in March, overruling the agency’s scientists who said there was no evidence the action would slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Why it matters: The US government has a responsibility to protect the health and safety of its people and, during the COVID-19 pandemic, this means that government officials have a duty to carry out evidence-based actions that the science suggests will save lives against a deadly disease. However, this CDC order was widely considered by CDC scientists as out-of-line since the best available scientific evidence did not provide a solid basis for this action. Therefore, in this situation, the White House prioritized a political agenda over the concerns of CDC scientists, thereby once again failing to listen to the nation’s premiere experts on how best to respond to the pandemic.

The White House demanded that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) exercise its power in March to effectively stop the flow of immigration despite stark concerns raised by CDC scientists that, with the ongoing outbreaks of COVID-19 in the US, there was no evidence that this action would halt or slow the spread of COVID-19 in the US. While the order was issued for both the Canadian and Mexican borders, most of the impacts occurred at the US-Mexico border. The CDC’s order, which went into effect on March 20, has led to nearly 150,000 people being sent back to their countries of origin without due process. This includes at least 8,800 children who entered the US without parents or guardians – unaccompanied children are normally afforded special legal protections but were denied this right under the CDC order.

The CDC order was based on a rarely used power under Title 42 of the Public Health Service Act, which allows the CDC Director to stop the flow of immigration if it presents a serious danger to public health. People can be blocked from entering the US if the following conditions are met: 1) there is a serious danger that a communicable disease from a foreign nation or place can enter into the US; 2) the danger of introducing this disease to the US is increased by the flow of immigration from the foreign nations; and, 3) the danger is so great that a temporary suspension of people from these nations is necessary to protect public health.

According to AP News and the Wall Street Journal, a number of top White House officials were directly involved. Vice President Mike Pence – along with the VP’s chief of staff, Marc Short, and acting Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf – placed a phone call to CDC Director Robert Redfield in early March and told him to use the CDC’s special legal authority during the pandemic. According to a former CDC official, after Pence’s phone call, Redfield immediately ordered his senior staff to carry out this action.

According to multiple sources and documents, top White House aide Stephen Miller appeared to have developed the idea for this order and played an major role in pressing the CDC for this order. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Miller had explored the option of declaring a public health emergency at the border to deny asylum seekers a chance to make their case. As early as January, Miller repeatedly used the novel coronavirus threat to make the case for restricting immigration and shutting down the border. In January or February, he pressed the staff of the Coronavirus Task Force to add the CDC order as an item to the task force’s agenda. As stated by Oliver Troye, a former aide to Pence, “That was a Stephen Miller special. He was all over that. There was a lot of pressure on DHS and CDC to push this forward.”

Several CDC scientists and officials argued against the issuing of this order. In late February, CDC policy officials and aides to Redfield described the order as an inappropriate use of their authority to accomplish a goal that did not appear to be primarily motivated by public health concerns. In early March, the CDC’s Division of Migration and Quarantine, led by Dr. Martin Cetron, argued that there was not a strong public health basis to justify such a drastic move. At the time, COVID-19 outbreaks were worse in El Paso, Texas and Southern California than in Mexico, leading one CDC official, on a phone call with lawyers at US Customs and Border Protection, to joke that it made more sense for Mexico to prevent Americans from entering their country—not the other way around. When COVID-19 spread across Latin America, CDC officials did not change their assessment and continued to argue against issuing the order.

Despite the resistance of CDC scientists, the White House continued to press the issue. They pushed for lawyers at CDC’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and at US Customs and Border Protection to call CDC’s senior leadership and convince the agency to issue the order. When, in mid-March, CDC scientists continued to resist, Pence and Wolf placed another call to Redfield to pressure the agency to carry out the order quickly. The order, which was written up by a lawyer from HHS, was eventually reviewed and signed by Redfield. The order, which was originally a temporary one-month-long measure, has been renewed multiple times since March.

The Title 42 section of the Public Health Service Act was never intended as a way for the government to halt immigration for months at time – it was meant as a measure of last resort when the science showed that there was a very real danger to public health. The White House is valuing a political agenda over the concerns of some of the best trained scientists in the world, who unequivocally state that there is no evidence that this order will slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. When the White House ignores CDC scientists on such a fundamental issue, it sets a dangerous precedent that the concerns of scientists are not worth listening to in the midst of a deadly pandemic.