HOUSTON – The Trump administration has sharply increased its use of hotels to detain immigrant children as young as 1 before expelling them from the United States during the coronavirus pandemic despite facing outcry from lawmakers and human-rights advocates.
Federal authorities said they detained 577 unaccompanied children in hotels through the end of July, up from 240 in April, May and June, according to a report published late Wednesday from a court-appointed monitor for detained immigrant youth.
The Associated Press reported on the practice last month, with the Trump administration citing the threat of the virus in rapidly expelling those children and other migrants under an emergency declaration that denies them a chance to seek asylum. Keeping kids in hotels circumvents federal anti-trafficking laws and a two-decade-old court settlement, and advocates have warned of potential mistreatment.
Meanwhile, new allegations have emerged of efforts at the hotels to skirt health precautions.
An immigrant from Haiti says government contractors at a hotel where he was detained gave his family, including his 1-year-old daughter, cups of ice to eat to pass temperature checks before their deportation flight, though they had tested negative for COVID-19.
“We were given them with only one instruction, to eat them to lower our temperature,” Verty told the AP last week. He’s being identified only by his last name because he fears retribution if he tries to come to the U.S. again.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement guidelines say no detainee with a temperature above 99 degrees (37 degrees Celsius) can board a deportation flight — a way to protect against the spread of COVID-19, which often causes a fever. In a statement, the agency said it “does not seek to alter an individual’s temperature through artificial cooling measures.”
The Trump administration has defended expelling more than 100,000 adults and children, saying the practice is necessary to protect border agents and stop the virus from spreading. It has effectively shut down the asylum system during the pandemic, which opponents of President Donald Trump say is being used as a pretext to implement long-sought restrictions on immigration.
Most children who cross the border without permission are supposed to go to Health and Human Services shelters that are licensed by states, offer schooling and legal services, and eventually place children with family sponsors.
Instead, the Trump administration is holding children in hotels or Border Patrol facilities for days, sometimes weeks, before expelling them. At least 2,000 children who came to the U.S. without a parent have been sent back to their home countries, though officials haven’t updated the total since late June.
Immigration authorities say “transportation specialists” from the private contractor MVM Inc. care for children in hotels. ICE has described them as “non-law enforcement staff members trained to work with minors and to ensure that all aspects of the transport or stay are compliant.” The agency declined to say whether they undergo FBI background checks.
The federal government compiled the new data as part of the Flores settlement agreement that governs the treatment of immigrant children in custody. The report says children are being housed in more than 25 hotels, up from three last month.
In court filings, the Trump administration says children in hotels are given medical care and temperature checks every four hours. Surfaces are sanitized and meals from local restaurants are served three times a day, plus snacks, the government says. As first reported by ProPublica, the government says it expels children detained in hotels only after they test negative for COVID-19.
The AP interviewed two fathers from Haiti who were detained with their wives and infant children in July at the Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen, Texas. In addition to Verty, the AP is identifying the second father, Paul, only by his first name because he has a pending immigration case in the U.S.
Both said the hotel had good meals, showers and comfortable beds, unlike a border detention center where they were first held separately from their families and unable to shower for days. Their temperatures were checked throughout the day at the hotel, where many people appeared to be Haitian, they said.
But they weren’t allowed to leave their rooms. The telephones were removed, and to call relatives, they had to ask the contractors supervising them. Paul said a contractor stayed in his room at all hours, insisting that the family keep the bathroom door open anytime they went inside.
Paul and his wife tested positive at the hotel for COVID-19, while Verty and his wife tested negative.
Verty says contractors repeatedly told them they were taking a flight to Florida to live with relatives and encouraged them to eat ice in case their temperatures were checked.
“I understood it was a deportation when I saw people arriving in handcuffs,” he said.
After the AP reported in July that three Hampton Inns had been used to detain children, advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers criticized the administration, with U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania tweeting, “This is child abuse.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also sued on behalf of people detained at the McAllen hotel.
The U.S. government agreed not to expel 17 parents and children who were at the hotel on July 23, and Paul’s family was eventually released in the U.S.
“We have now filed a class action to stop the policy wholesale, because the government’s policy of holding the children in secret in hotels and quickly expelling them made it impossible to find and represent each child individually,” ACLU lawyer Lee Gelernt said.
Both Paul and Verty had fled Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, in 2016 and settled in Chile. They decided in November 2019 to try to enter the U.S. It took the families six months to traverse South and Central America, crossing often-deadly jungles and migration routes, before they arrived in July.
Advocates for Haitian immigrants say they face special mistreatment, with higher bonds and less likelihood of winning asylum.
“Racism, discrimination, and anti-Blackness is rooted in every system, including the immigration system,” said Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance.
While Paul and his family are in the U.S., his friend Verty is back in Haiti, facing irregular electricity and access to food.
“We always talked about our plans together, how we were going to work hard for our families,” Paul said. “I still have faith that he’ll make it here some day. I don’t know how.”
Sanon reported from Port-au-Prince, Haiti.