Near the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas, a 13-year-old girl was illegally detained by Immigrations and Customs Enforcementat a Hampton Inn for an untold amount of time without her mother, the Texas Civil Rights Project has reported. ICE later expelled the girl to her home country of El Salvador without notifying her mother, who was still living in the U.S. at the time, TCRP said, adding that the girl is not the only child ICE has detained in at least three confirmed hotel-detention centers.
TCRP is suing the U.S. federal government to bring the 13-year-old back to the country, reunite her with her family, and allow her to attend a legal immigration hearing. Roberto Lopez, a racial and economic justice outreach coordinator with the TCRP, tells Mic that the girl was legally entitled to an immigration hearing and that the federal government denied her constitutional rights.
Unaccompanied children attempting to immigrate to the U.S. are already vulnerable to exploitation, trauma, and emotional distress. The coronavirus pandemic has worsened the situation, making it less likely that children are getting the care they need — not to mention Texas's struggle to handle the pandemic in general. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has consistently pursued xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies and, most recently, attempted to prohibit entrance to the country for all immigrants, even those seeking asylum.
According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, the 13-year-old's experience is not the only instance of detention and expulsion. Some children as young as 1-year-old are being detained in private hotel rooms rented out by ICE contractors, such as MVM Inc., before they are expelled from the U.S. Expelling someone is different than deporting someone, as deportation requires that a person be found guilty of an immigration crime.
The AP report, published last week, confirmed what the TCRP had suspected. Three hotels — one in El Paso, one in McAllen, and one in Phoenix, Arizona — housed unaccompanied children seeking to immigrate to the U.S. Lopez says that because of the lack of government transparency, TCRP doesn't know exactly how many children are still being held, their ages, their home countries, or what conditions they're being held in. A hurricane touched down in south Texas over the weekend, compounding the concerns that children are in danger.
After connecting with TCRP, the 13-year-old girl told her lawyers that she had been taken to a hotel. Lopez also received a tip at the time regarding a Hampton Inn in the area, and went there to see what he would find. When he arrived he saw at least six unmarked white vans in the parking lot, he says, and says that when he looked through the vans' tinted windows, he saw the heads of what he assumed were children.
Lopez tells Mic that he then went to each floor of the hotel, stopping on the fourth and fifth floors where he saw adults wearing scrubs and moving from room to room. Shortly after Lopez investigated and AP published its report, ICE allegedly moved the children to a different facility.
"We still do not know where the children are," Lopez tells Mic. He believes that the lack of documentation and transparency is the "genius" of ICE's current operation, and that the agency is housing children in "blacksites" that are inaccessible to legal aid and guardians of the children. The lack of information means that TCRP "can't hear anything [and] can't do anything," Lopez says, until members of government put pressure on the Department of Homeland Security and ICE to release information about the children they've detained. (Mic reached out to ICE for comment but did not receive a response.)
AP's reporting found that rooms at the Hampton Inn in McAllen were most frequently booked by the subcontractor for ICE, MVM, Inc. — a total of 123 times over the course of two months. However, the number of rooms is not an exact count of the number of children detained, and various DHS agencies report different numbers of children agents have stopped at the border.
MVM Inc. has contracted hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of business with the federal government, transporting and housing unaccompanied minors. The company has previously received criticism for detaining children in an office. The Daily Beast reported in 2018 that MVM Inc. was one of the major government contractors that was actually making money off of the Trump administration's "zero-tolerance" immigration policy.
The MVM Inc. website currently lists an open position for a "Bilingual Travel Child Protective Case Worker" who will "provide humble care and service to unaccompanied children and teens, while you are accompanying them on domestic flights and via ground transportation to shelters all over the country." (Mic reached out to MVM Inc. for comment but did not receive a response.)
A previous court settlement dictates that the government can't detain children without family for more than 72 hours, Lopez notes. (This settlement agreement, known as the Flores agreement, is the same one that was central to the family separations at the border in 2018.) But "at least two 1-year-olds were held for three days," AP reported. "Some young children, including 3- to 5-year-olds, were detained for two weeks or longer. One 5-year-old was detained for 19 days."
Last week, a federal monitor charged with looking into immigration cases involving the Flores agreement directed the government to halt its hotel detention activities. The Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has since announced that the children will be transferred to shelters, which are also often run by private organizations contracted by the federal government.
Still, there's no information yet about where these shelters are, if the children's medical needs are being met, if they've spoken with lawyers, or if the ORR has attempted to make contact with a family member or guardian of the children, as it is required to do by law. (Mic reached out to the ORR for comment but did not receive a response.)
And if ORR was able to step in so quickly and transfer the children to shelters, it's not clear why they were held alone in hotel rooms in the first place.