By Kristina Cooke and Mica Rosenberg
(Reuters) -A federal judge in Louisiana on Friday blocked U.S. authorities from lifting COVID-19 restrictions that empower agents at the U.S.-Mexico border to turn back migrants without giving them a chance to seek asylum.
The nationwide injunction issued by U.S. District Judge Robert Summerhays means the restrictions, which were set to end on May 23, will remain in place across the border as the litigation proceeds, absent any appeal by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).
The pandemic restrictions, known as Title 42, were put in place in March 2020 during the administration of former Republican President Donald Trump, an immigration hardliner. Health authorities at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said at the time it was needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus in crowded border facilities.
Since then, more than a million migrants apprehended at the border have been rapidly expelled to Mexico or other countries under the order, often within hours of being caught.
The ruling comes amid criticism of President Joe Biden's decision to lift Title 42, from Republicans and some members of his own party, who raised concerns that ending the expulsions would push a record number of migrant crossings even higher.
Judge Summerhays, a Trump appointee, said keeping the Title 42 order in place "would serve the public interest" and that a nationwide injunction is necessary given the ability of immigrants crossing the border to move freely from one state to another.
Biden, who took office in January 2021, kept the Trump-era Title 42 order in place, despite concerns from medical experts, the United Nations, and leading members of his own party, who said the expulsions put vulnerable migrants in danger and were not based on science.
The DOJ and the White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Biden administration officials say the quick expulsions have led to a high number of repeat crossers.
Last month, the CDC said Title 42 was no longer needed to fight COVID-19 due to the increased availability of vaccines and other tools.
But a coalition of two dozen states led by Arizona, Louisiana, and Missouri, all with Republican attorneys general, sued to prevent the Biden administration from ending the policy.
The judge found the states had a "substantial likelihood of success" regarding their claim that the CDC failed to take proper regulatory steps when it moved to terminate Title 42. Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich applauded the ruling as a "significant win."
The decision leaves thousands of migrants in limbo who have been waiting in Mexican border cities for the order to end so they can begin the process of seeking asylum in the United States. On Friday, a group of migrants gathered outside the U.S. consulate in Tijuana to voice their concerns.
"We're here with our vaccination cards and negative COVID-19 tests to prove that we don't have this sickness," said Mexican asylum seeker Juan Carlos Guzman, who said he had fled the violence-torn state of Guanajuato after an organized crime group assassinated his son.
Advocates quickly condemned the judge's decision. A separate court ruling blocks the Biden administration from expelling families to places where they could be persecuted or tortured.
(Reporting by Kristina Cooke in San Francisco and Mica Rosenberg in New York; additional reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington and Jorge Nieto in Tijuana; editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Daniel Wallis)