Originally Published in NPR
Joel Rose and Marisa Peñaloza - August 20, 2020
It was late at night when two teenage cousins from Honduras arrived in a hotel parking lot somewhere in the U.S., escorted by armed men in civilian clothes.
The young men crossed the border illegally into Texas last month and turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. After spending the night in detention, they say they were loaded into a van by the men who were not in uniforms and driven three hours to the hotel.
"We went in through a side door. No one was there. We didn't have to sign in or anything. We couldn't see the name of the hotel," Jorge, who is 16, says in Spanish. His cousin, Ricardo, is 13.
Both young men are now in the custody of Ricardo's father, who asked that we not use their last names because they are still in immigration proceedings. They fled Honduras together after gang members threatened their family there.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, the Trump administration has set up a shadow immigration system on the U.S.-Mexico border. It involves private contractors detaining migrant children in hotels before they are quickly sent home. This allows immigration officials to bypass the normal process that would give the children a chance to ask for asylum here.
Normally, when migrant children traveling alone are apprehended by the Border Patrol, there are special protections that kick in to make sure they aren't sent back to dangerous situations. They're supposed to be detained in child-appropriate shelters before being placed with a sponsor in the U.S. while their asylum cases are heard.
But during the pandemic, that's not happening.
Up and down the border, court documents show, many unaccompanied children have been held secretly in hotels for days, sometimes weeks, until they can be put on planes back to the countries they came from.
The Trump administration says it's trying to protect public health during the pandemic by keeping unauthorized migrants out of detention facilities and shelters in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order in March directing immigration officials to quickly expel migrants at the southern border.
Under that order, the U.S. has carried out 100,000 expulsions, removing more than 2,000 unaccompanied children, according to Mark Morgan, the acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
"What we're trying to do, the best we can, is remove all individuals, regardless of whether they're minors or adults," Morgan said at a press briefing earlier this month.
"We're trying to remove them as fast as we can to not put them into our system, to not have them remain in the United States for a long periods of time, therefore increasing the exposure risk to the American people," Morgan said.
For years, the Trump administration has sought to roll back protections for migrant children, which it considers a "loophole" in U.S. immigration law because these children are typically allowed to stay in the U.S. and have a path to citizenship if their asylum claims are successful.
"It's really clear to us that this is a pretext for blocking access to protection for children and asylum-seekers," said Lisa Frydman, vice president at Kids In Need of Defense, or KIND, a nonprofit that's trying to get children released from this shadow immigration system.
"It completely takes them a hundred percent out of all of the special protections that have been put in place in recognition of the vulnerability of unaccompanied children," Frydman said.
Immigration lawyers have discovered where some migrant children have been detained in hotels, and they've gone to court to try to stop their expulsions. In several cases, immigration officials responded by releasing the children to the federally funded shelter system, making those individual court cases moot.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all migrant children in this situation, hoping to stop the cat-and-mouse game and put an end to the rapid expulsions.
"Ultimately, we had to file this class action," said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project. "Otherwise, we are looking at potentially thousands more being sent back to danger, without any hearing whatsoever."
The Texas Civil Rights Project also has been working to help these migrant children. It posted a video on social media last month showing attorney Andrew Udelsman confronting several unidentified men at a Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen, Texas, where the group believes migrant children were being detained.
"If you're detained, give me your name," Udelsman shouts down a hallway.
One of the men says: "Get out if you're smart."
The lawyer then asks if the men are police officers, to which one of them responds: "Don't worry about who we are. Get out."
The men then shove the lawyer back into the elevator.