The US detained hundreds of migrant children in hotels as the pandemic flared

The US detained hundreds of migrant children in hotels as the pandemic flared

Originally Published in CNN

Catherine E. Shoichet and Geneva Sands - September 3, 2020

Migrants peak out of the window of the fourth floor of a Hampton Inn in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday July 23, 2020.

(CNN)Hundreds of migrant children have been held in hotels 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 US 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 obtained by CNN 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.
The US is swiftly removing migrant children due to new coronavirus restrictions

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."
"I felt suffocated being there," 16-year-old J.B.B.C. says of the days when he was detained in hotels in El Paso, Texas. The teen, whose attorneys asked that he be identified only by his initials to protect his safety, is shown here in his native Honduras. He is seeking asylum in the United States.

"I felt suffocated being there," 16-year-old J.B.B.C. says of the days when he was detained in hotels in El Paso, Texas. The teen, whose attorneys asked that he be identified only by his initials to protect his safety, is shown here in his native Honduras. He is seeking asylum in the United States.
Before the pandemic, children and families who were taken into custody at the border — like this group awaiting processing in 2019 -- had a chance to seek asylum in the US. Now, most are expelled without court hearings.

Before the pandemic, children and families who were taken into custody at the border — like this group awaiting processing in 2019 -- had a chance to seek asylum in the US. Now, most are expelled without court hearings.
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.
Protesters wave signs in front of the Hampton Inn hotel in McAllen, Texas, on July 23rd.

Protesters wave signs in front of the Hampton Inn hotel in McAllen, Texas, on July 23rd.
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.
A Hampton Inn is shown Tuesday, July 21, 2020 in Phoenix. Court records describe it as one of more than 25 hotels in the US where migrant were detained.

A Hampton Inn is shown Tuesday, July 21, 2020 in Phoenix. Court records describe it as one of more than 25 hotels in the US where migrant were detained.
Verty, who recently tried to immigrate to the United States, told The Associated Press that he and his family were detained at a hotel before being expelled on a flight to Haiti.

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