U.S. detained hundreds of migrant children in hotels in El Paso, across Texas as pandemic flared

EL PASO, Texas — Hundreds of migrant children have been held in hotels, in El Paso and throughout Texas and the southern U.S., and guarded by government contractors in recent months as part of a secretive new system that advocates warn puts kids in danger.

Immigrant and civil rights groups accuse the U.S. government of using the pandemic to create a shadow immigration system that skirts the law, with authorities denying vulnerable children protections they’re entitled to and rushing to kick them out of the country.

“These children are being held at what are essentially black sites, with no access to the outside world. And not only no access to the outside world, but no access to the immigration system,” says Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“This whole process is egregious, period,” Vargas says. “It is a violation…of every single protection that these children have.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to respond to CNN’s questions about the use of hotels to detain children and families, citing pending litigation. But officials have defended the practice in court filings, arguing that they’re protecting the safety of kids in custody while following new public health guidelines.

Court documents reveal that detaining children in hotels has become increasingly common during the coronavirus pandemic. According to recent court filings, more than 25 hotels in three states — Arizona, Texas and Louisiana — are currently being used to detain immigrant children.

More than 570 unaccompanied minors and more than 80 children traveling with family members have been detained in hotels since officials began invoking a public health law to restrict immigration in March. Some children have been held in hotels for a few days, others for weeks.

Under the new approach, most children are expelled without ever getting a chance to speak with lawyers or a judge, according to advocates who are fighting the practice in court. For months, they’ve been trying to piece together details about what’s going on. But they say much remains hidden from the public.

“No one has eyes on these children,” says attorney Neha Desai of the National Center for Youth Law. “If there’s no one who has the ability to bear witness and document what’s happening, no mechanism for enforcing the rights of these detained children, there is incredible room for abuse and/or neglect.”

Families frantically searched for kids in custody

A 16-year-old from Honduras who was held in El Paso hotels for 28 days told CNN he could hear the fear in his father’s voice when they spoke on the phone.

They were only allowed to talk for 10 minutes every day, he says, in a monitored speaker-phone call.

“People were listening the whole time. … I couldn’t give him any information about where I was,” says the teen, whose attorneys asked that he be identified only by his initials, J.B.B.C., to protect his safety because he is seeking asylum in the United States.

“I couldn’t tell him where the hotel was or the name of it or anything,” he says. “He was really worried. He wanted to know where I was. When I told him I couldn’t tell him, he got even more worried.”

This isn’t the first time immigration authorities have detained children and families in hotels. It’s drawn criticism from advocacy groups before — and promises from major hotel chains to pull back from the practice. But the issue drew renewed attention from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups in July after reports detailing the increased use of hotel detentions from The Associated Press and an independent, court-appointed monitor tasked with assessing the welfare of migrant children in custody.

In a July 22 court filing, the monitor wrote that what once was a small, stopgap measure for children being transported to ICE deportation flights has become a more widespread practice during the coronavirus pandemic as officials use a public health law to detain migrants apprehended at the border and swiftly expel them from the United States.

Immigrant rights organizations say they learned hotels were being used to detain many children swept up in the new regulations as they started getting frantic calls from families who were unable to locate loved ones.

“There’s very little information about where these kids are … We’re scrambling to try to find the child,” says Lisa Frydman, vice president for international programs at Kids in Need of Defense. “They could be at risk of being put on a plane within hours.”

Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, says she’s had heartbreaking conversations with many families desperate for answers. People detained in hotels are particularly difficult to find, she says, because they aren’t assigned the identification numbers given to other detained migrants who are being officially processed in the immigration system.

“They were nowhere to be found. You are literally in a mode where you have to find those people, but you cannot find them,” she says. “It’s trauma. It’s stressful. You have to tell the relative, ‘I’m sorry. I cannot find the family member, and I’m still looking.’”

ICE referred questions about identification numbers to Customs and Border Protection. A CBP spokesperson declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Why lawyers held a banner with their phone number outside one hotel

And sometimes, even when kids are found, attorneys struggle to reach them.

That’s what happened in July when a group of attorneys and advocates from the Texas Civil Rights Project gathered outside a Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen, Texas.

They said they knew migrants were being held inside. So they honked car horns from the parking lot and held up a banner showing a phone number, hoping children or families detained inside would call their hotline for help.

Photos from Texas Public Radio showed several migrants pressed against their hotel room windows, looking down at the protesters. Advocates from the Texas Civil Rights project said they saw several people appear in a window of the hotel, holding up signs that said, “We don’t have a phone” and “We need your help.”

ICE says its contract with MVM Inc., the private security company involved in the hotel detentions, requires that individuals be provided access to phones while detained, and that there are no limits on the number of calls detainees are able to make.

The Texas Civil Rights Project says no one detained inside the hotel called them, but some parents saw news stories about the protest and reached out about their missing children.

As reports of the protest spread, Hilton, the parent company of the Hampton Inn & Suites, released a statement saying it had confirmed that the independently owned and managed McAllen hotel had accepted reservations from a private contractor working on behalf of ICE.

“This is not activity that we support or in any way want associated with our hotels,” Hilton said. “Our policy has always been that hotels should not be used as detention centers or for detaining individuals. We expect all Hilton properties to reject business that would use a hotel in this way. We are in the process of contacting all Hilton owners and management companies in the U.S. to remind them of our policy, and provide guidance on identifying and preventing this type of business.”

Since then, the company has taken a number of steps to reinforce its longstanding policy, Hilton spokesman Nigel Glennie said, including contacting government officials and reviewing reservations with hotels in its network to ensure compliance.

The Hampton Inn & Suites McAllen said in a July statement it had taken bookings without realizing rooms would be used to house immigrant minors.

“We have decided to cancel this business immediately and will not accept further reservations of this type,” the statement said.

As of July 16, according to the independent monitor’s court report, 22 unaccompanied minors and 21 family units were detained in the hotel. According to another recent court filing citing government statistics, over the course of the pandemic, more than 330 children were detained there — the largest number of any hotels on the list.

After the ACLU and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed a lawsuit against the federal government over the children detained in the McAllen hotel, officials agreed to transfer the remaining unaccompanied minors who’d been held there to Office of Refugee Resettlement shelters. But other hotels are still being used to detain migrants, according to court records.

What conditions are like for migrants held in hotels

At the two El Paso hotels where he was detained, J.B.B.C. says the guards were kind, watching movies with him, playing cards and chatting. At first, he says he wasn’t allowed to leave his room.

“It was forbidden,” he says. “The people who took care of me were friendly to me. … I had everything I needed. I ate, I slept, I bathed. But I felt suffocated being there — not being able to go out, not being able to interact with other people, not knowing what was going to happen to me.”

As time wore on during the weeks he was detained, according to his attorney, he was eventually allowed to go outside for short periods.

Migrant children detained in hotels usually aren’t allowed to go outside, according to the court-appointed monitor’s July report, which cited information she’d received from government officials. “Younger children may sometimes play in enclosed pool areas for short supervised periods, but generally, residents have little to no access to recreation,” the report says. “Minors in temporary housing also lack access to education and therapy/counseling.”

Advocates argue this violates requirements for safe and appropriate placement of children in the government’s care. But they say a lot of details about conditions in hotels remain unknown, because independent monitors and advocates representing migrant children haven’t been granted access to the facilities and must rely on the government’s descriptions.

“In contrast to licensed, regularly monitored facilities, the treatment and conditions children experience in hotels and other unlicensed placements is largely shrouded in secrecy,” lawyers said in a recent court filing.

Meanwhile, government officials have defended conditions inside the hotels where migrants are held.

“They have a warm bed, they have food, they’re able to moderate the temperature to their liking, they’ve got television, they’ve got video games, they’ve got other things to keep them occupied for what is a short period of time before they get expelled,” a senior ICE official told CNN. “And it keeps them from being introduced into the general population, which is the basis of the CDC order.”

In a court filing last month, Mellissa Harper, an ICE official, described sanitary supplies, backpacks and clothes that are provided to kids. Three hot meals are provided daily, she said, in addition to snacks and water.

MVM, the company tasked with caring for children detained in hotels, declined to comment on its role and referred questions to ICE, telling CNN its contract with ICE does not allow it to respond to media requests.

ICE describes MVM’s transportation specialists as “non-law enforcement staff trained to work with minors.” And in her court declaration, Harper describes MVM as “a company specializing in the transportation and care of this vulnerable population.”

But Desai says the contractor’s role in the hotel detentions is deeply concerning.

“These are not child welfare professionals or contractors that are monitored by child welfare authorities. There is absolutely no way to ensure that kids are safe, emotionally and physically, that kids are receiving basic provisions that the government insists that they are,” she says.

“Fundamentally, it’s totally inappropriate for ICE contractors to have physical custody over these extraordinarily vulnerable children. Meanwhile, the government acts like we should just trust them when they’ve given no reason to do so.”

Efforts to expel migrant kids from the U.S. are spurring legal challenges

An internal watchdog at the Department of Homeland Security is investigating the use of hotels to detain migrants as part of recent efforts to expel migrants soon after they’ve crossed the border. A source familiar with the review who was not authorized to speak publicly told CNN that the department’s Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties is looking into the matter.

Advocates argue the hotel detentions shouldn’t be allowed to continue, especially for unaccompanied minors, because they violate children’s rights and a 1997 settlement that limits the length of time and conditions under which US officials can detain immigrant children. The government argues that agreement shouldn’t apply to children detained in hotels as a result of the CDC’s public health restrictions.

Both sides will be facing off in federal court in California this week as part of ongoing litigation related to that 1997 settlement.

It’s one of a number of legal challenges the government is facing over how its public health policies are affecting immigration.

Another pending case argues that a 13-year-old who was held in a hotel for several days and recently expelled to El Salvador is now “in grave danger,” and is asking officials to allow her to return to the US. The government has asked a federal judge to dismiss that case, arguing the court doesn’t have jurisdiction over the matter, that bringing the girl back could prompt other children expelled under the CDC order to make similar requests and that doing so would jeopardize the government’s ability to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic.

A class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU argues that using the public health law to expel children is unconstitutional. The government hasn’t yet responded to that claim in court.

The larger issue, advocates say, isn’t just that children are being detained in hotels, but that many of them are being swiftly kicked out of the United States.

“We never want children held in hotels in secret without the proper supervision, but the even bigger concern is that they are expelled without hearings,” says attorney Lee Gelernt of the ACLU. “That would be a problem regardless of where they are held in the interim.”

Officials haven’t released updated data specifying how many children have been expelled from the US under the public health measure. According to US Customs and Border Protection, more than 100,000 people — including adults and children — were expelled from March through July.

Mark Morgan, the agency’s acting commissioner, says this approach is keeping the U.S. safe by decreasing the risk that Covid-19 will spread and infect CBP officers or other staff in detention facilities.

“What we’re trying to do the best we can is remove all individuals, regardless of whether they’re children — minors — or they’re adults,” Morgan said in an August media briefing. “We’re trying to remove them as fast as we can, to not put them in our congregate settings, to not put them into our system, to not have them remain in the United States for a long period of time, therefore increasing the exposure risk of everybody they come in contact with.”

Advocates argue the administration is using public health claims as a pretext to impose harsh immigration restrictions. Before the pandemic, when migrant children traveling alone were apprehended by the Border Patrol, special protections were in place to make sure they weren’t sent back into danger. Officials appear to no longer be following those steps, Frydman says.

“It’s just completely contrary, not only to all child protection norms and standards, but also just completely contrary to our values as a nation around protecting the most vulnerable,” Frydman says, “because we are just wholesale shipping them out without making sure that it’s safe for them to go.”

J.B.B.C. knows firsthand the dangers migrant children who’ve fled to the US are facing. According to court filings, he left Honduras after witnessing a murder and getting threats from gang members.

After being detained at hotels in El Paso for 28 days, he was transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter shortly after a federal lawsuit was filed over his case. His attorney says he’s now reunited with his father in Texas and making an asylum claim.

But the teen says he still thinks about the children who remain detained — and those who were held in hotels and deported without having a chance to make their case.

If he had a chance to speak with US leaders, he says he’d remind them how serious the situation is.

“They are not taking care of children like they should, deporting them to their country,” he says.

Children who are sent back, he says, may go from living in a U.S. hotel room to dangerous conditions or even death in the countries they fled.

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