Why Are Migrant Children Being Detained In Hotel Rooms Without Protection?

Erin Corbett

The Trump administration is detaining immigrant children in hotel rooms, sometimes for weeks at a time, while the children await deportation to their countries of origin, the Associated Press reports. Children as young as one year old have been held in three Hampton Inn & Suites hotels in Phoenix, Arizona, and in McAllen and El Paso, Texas. 

According to records obtained by AP, the hotels have been used nearly 200 times to detain children for several days before they are expelled from the country. Meanwhile, government shelters meant to house undocumented minors have remained empty. The administration faces a lawsuit filed in federal court in Washington, D.C. in June by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies, and Oxfam. The suit is on behalf of a 13-year-old who was restricted from receiving access to asylum protections and was deported without due process.  

Attorneys and advocates say the Trump administration is using the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as reason to deny immigrant children their basic rights. As such, the government has reportedly attempted to shut down the U.S. asylum system in order to disappear children without a paper trail. At least 2,000 unaccompanied minors have been expelled from the U.S. since March, under Trump’s proposal to refuse entry to people seeking asylum protections, the AP reports. The lawsuit challenges the administration’s tactic of exploiting the current public health crisis to “restrict immigration and circumvent the protections in the immigration laws.” 

The complaint further states that the plaintiff’s rights were violated under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the Convention Against Torture.  

In what advocates are calling a “shadow system,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has been working with private contractors, which it referred to as “transportation specialists” who are “non-law enforcement staff members” to transport and house minors. It remains unclear whether the contractors are licensed child care professionals.

A community organizer with the Texas Civil Rights Project detailed a visit on Friday to the hotel where children were being held in McAllen. 

“I saw one young Black child, possibly from the ages of two to four behind a child gate in a hotel room,” Lopez said in a video shared by the organization’s Twitter account. “There are many staff at the Hampton Inn here in McAllen, Texas and it was just a harrowing site to see this as a sort of shadow operation unfolding in my home region.” Lopez added that during his visit he saw unmarked white vans without identification for any specific government agencies. Similarly, the hotels are not listed as detention facilities on ICE’s website. 

Immigrant rights advocates and attorneys say the detention of migrant children in such conditions could be in violation of the 1997 Flores settlement, which limits how long children can remain in detention, and sets certain standards for their detainment. The agreement mandates that most children be sent to shelters while awaiting placement with family sponsors. According to the report, at least three five-year-old children were held at the hotels for more than two weeks. 

“This is just another concerted attack on asylum by this administration,” said Lopez. “This is a way for the administration to not send children to the appropriate agencies where they will then be sent to sponsors and safety here in the U.S.” 

In this case, the secretive nature of the operation, including the use of non-credentialed contractors to transport and detain migrant children, poses a threat to the basic protections of the children being held there and circumvents U.S. immigration law.

Trump’s use of hotels to house migrant children with unidentified agencies, and without any documentation, appears to exist within its own legal black hole — one the administration has been expanding since the start of the pandemic. Advocates with the Texas Civil Rights Project say that in this case, the secrecy of the operation is one strategy to continue inflicting harm to immigrants and asylum-seekers.

“These hotels are black sites to hold children on the way to expulsion without a trace,” said Vargas. “If the government can disappear these kids in McAllen, and they can disappear protestors in Portland, they can disappear you.”

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