Immigrant Children Held Illegally in US Hotels
On July 22, the Associated Press (AP) reported that the Trump Administration is detaining immigrant children in three Hampton Inn & Suite Hotels, particularly in El Paso and McAllen, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona.
When Roberto Lopez of the Texas Civil Rights Project visited the Hampton Inn Hotel in McAllen, Texas, he reportedly observed people in scrubs going from room to room, caring for children, and at least one child cried in the background. Outside the hotel, he saw the silhouettes of adults and children in the windows of unmarked white vans. No government logos or insignia were visible on the vans or in the hotel.
The use of hotels to detain migrant children is part of a larger set of recent changes to the immigration system. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump Administration has instituted an unprecedented policy authorizing rapid expulsions of migrants and asylum seekers, including children in violation of U.S. asylum laws. More than 2,000 unaccompanied children were expelled. The current administration’s emergency health declaration denies children as well as federal protection.
On March 20th, the Director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) mandated a temporary prohibition on the movement of certain immigrants into the United States from Canada or Mexico, citing the coronavirus pandemic and the 1944 Public Health Service Act. This order encourages and permits the immediate deportation of non-citizens arriving overland without valid documents, such as asylum seekers.
Migrant children have reportedly been grabbed at the border. Before they are expelled, children are held at hotels, sometimes for weeks, with minimum government supervision or legal representation, violating their right to due process.
Deportation is a proceeding based on years of established law that requires a formal hearing in immigration court. The current expulsion policy does not permit any right to due process and leaves behind no paper trail. Since children are not given a primary registration number which the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) can use to track all immigrants in its care, “if something happens to that child, there’s no record that child was in the custody of the U.S. government,” says Efrén C. Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project
The administration’s novel policy of immediate expulsion constitutes “refoulement.” Refoulement is the forcible return of refugees or asylum seekers to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion. Refoulement is a breach of U.S. and international laws and treaties designed to protect people at risk of persecution, torture, and trafficking.
Last month in July, however, the Associated Press reported that refoulement is the second step of the Administration’s recent unethical and unlawful practice of detaining children in three Hampton Inn & Suite Hotels in El Paso and McAllen, Texas and Phoenix, Arizona. Recent government data obtained by the Associated Press shows that the U.S. detained children in the three hotels almost 200 times when there are more than 10,000 empty beds for children at official government detention centers.
New government numbers have also revealed that the total number of children detained in hotels is more than 240 in three months, according to the legal findings submitted to the court overseeing the compliance with the Flores settlement.
The Flores settlement set substantial precedents for the care, custody, and release of migrant children under federal custody. The government is obligated to place children in settings that are “least restrictive” and appropriate to their age and special needs, if any. This obligation only applies when children are not able to be immediately placed with a suitable sponsor.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), via its contractor MVM Inc., has repeatedly moved and detained children in the three hotels. In April, there were at least 29 unaccompanied children detained for as long as 10 days. In May, 80 children were detained and by June, at least 120 children were held in hotels.
MVM is a private security contractor from Virginia that detains children in hotel rooms. According to ICE, however, these contractors are “transportation specialists” that provide oversight of the minors and families in the hotels. ICE wouldn’t say whether they’re licensed for child care or if they have received FBI background checks.
Children are being supervised by private contractors such as MVM, with little ability to reach anyone outside. By law, migrant children cannot be detained for more than 72 hours in temporary Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processing facilities before sending them to the government shelters managed by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). On July 23, Andy Udelsman, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, attempted to provide legal help to detaines, including children, at the Hampton Inn Hotel in McAllen. Udelsman was, however, violently turned away to which other activists, including Udelsman, responded by creating signs outside the hotel and honking.
“The Hampton Inn hotel in McAllen, Texas was being used to house and detain individuals, including unaccompanied children but also other asylum seekers, including other family units before they were expelled from the country,” affirmed Zenen Jaimen Pérez, advocacy director of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Lawyers and advocates have warned that the use of hotels instead of state licensed centers can dramatically increase the risk of trauma for unaccompanied migrant children since neither the hotels nor the contractors are equipped to provide standard quality child care.
On behalf of the unaccompanied children detained in McAllen, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Trump Administration to stop their expulsion. The administration reportedly backed down and is permitting the transfer of the seventeen immigrants (including both adults and children) to ORR custody. In ORR, they will all have access to lawyers.
On July 24, the Hilton Inn & Suite Hotels in McAllen confirmed that the hotel “accepted reservations from a private contractor working on behalf of U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement.” The hotel also announced that it “will not accept similar reservations in the future.”
Click here to sign the petition and Tell Congress to Investigate the detention of children and asylum-seekers at secret hotels
Zazueta-Castro, Lorenzo “Monitor: Unaccompanied children should not be placed in hotels” The Monitor, 28 July 2020, https://www.themonitor.com/2020/07/28/monitor-unaccompanied-children-not-placed-hotels/
Merchant, Nomaan “AP Exclusive: Migrant kids held in US hotels, then expelled” The Associated Press News, 22 July 2020, https://apnews.com/c9b671b206060f2e9654f0a4eaeb6388
Lakhani, Nina “US using coronavirus pandemic to unlawfully expel asylum seekers, says UN”
The Guardian, 17 April 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/profile/nina-lakhani
Merchant, Nomaan “US won’t expel migrant children detained in Texas Hotel” The Associated Press News, 27 July 2020
Merchant, Nomaan “Seeking refuge in US. children fleeing danger are expelled” The Associated Press News, 6 August 2020
“What is the Flores Settlement Agreement and What Does It Mean for Family Separation and Family Detention?” Justice for Immigrants https://justiceforimmigrants.org/what-we-are-working-on/unaccompanied-children/what-is-the-flores-settlement-agreement-and-what-does-it-mean-for-family-separation-and-family-detention/