A federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump administration to stop detaining immigrant children in hotels before they were expelled from the United States. The much-criticized practice circumvented "basic humanitarian protection".
US District Judge Dolly Gee ruled that the use of hotels as long-term detention rooms violated a two-decade-old rule that regulates the treatment of children with a migrant background. She ordered the border authorities not to place children in hotels until September 15 and to remove children from hotels as soon as possible.
Immigration officials have expelled 148,000 people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since March under a letter of urgency citing the pandemic. The Trump administration says people who cross the border without a permit are putting public health at risk and must be quickly evicted from the country. Immigrant lawyers argue that the government is using the pandemic as an excuse to circumvent federal anti-trafficking and asylum laws.
To prevent them from being allowed to stay in the US, the Trump administration has been taking at least 577 unaccompanied children to hotels since March, where they are arrested and typically taken on deportation flights. Most of the children stayed in hotels at the Hampton Inn & Suites – two in Texas, one in Arizona.
That is, instead of sending them to emergency shelters run by the Department of Health and Human Services, where minors can get legal services, education, and the opportunity to be placed with relatives living in the United States. These facilities are licensed by the states in which they are located. Currently, more than 13,000 beds in HHS facilities are empty.
Gee's order directs the Trump administration to resume escorting unaccompanied children at HHS, and it also applies to children with parents who have crossed the line without authorization. There are also lawyers working with juvenile immigrants, access to the children that the government wants to expel under the emergency declaration. Separately, legal groups have sued the US to prevent the displacement of immigrant children altogether.
The government "cannot seriously argue in good faith that disregarding its contractual obligation to include minors in licensing programs is necessary to contain the spread of COVID-19," Gee wrote.
Hotels can still be used for one- or two-day stays as part of travel between different locations, she said.
The Justice Department did not comment immediately on Friday, but government lawyers said they would consider an appeal.
Private contractors in the hotels monitor detained children and families around the clock and generally do not allow people to leave their rooms. Families detained at the hotels have told The Associated Press that they are being served regular meals but that their phones have been removed from their rooms.
A Haitian father alleged a contractor gave him and his wife ice cream before his family was taken out of their room to swallow and feed their young daughter in case their temperatures were checked before boarding a flight. They were deported to Haiti without being able to apply for asylum.
The U.S. immigration and customs authorities denied the use of ice as an artificial cooling measure. MVM Inc. contractors have been identified as "transportation specialists" who "ensure that every minor is kept safe and secure in this temporary accommodation".
The Trump administration has argued that Gee is not empowered to cease using hotels because the children it is expelling fall outside of a long-standing court settlement known as the Flores Accords. It has already challenged several of Gee's judgments against detention practices.
Leecia Welch, a lawyer for the National Center for Youth Law, described the judgment as "a resounding victory for children with a migrant background".
"The government's attempt to use the pandemic as a ruse to carry out its ruthless immigration agenda is clearly against the rule of law and human decency," Welch said.