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A federal judge on Friday ordered the Trump administration to stop detaining immigrant children in hotels before quickly expelling them back to their home countries under pandemic-related border restrictions.
Since March, private contractors working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been detaining hundreds of children who arrive at the border without their parents or legal guardians in a system of hotels. The children are then quickly sent back to their home countries without being able to access the nation’s immigration system under a coronavirus pandemic order. The government has also been detaining some children with their parents in hotels.
According to court documents, as of July 31, at least 660 children have been detained in hotels by ICE, and 577 of them were unaccompanied immigrant children. Attorneys have called the hotels "black sites" because of how difficult it is to get information about immigrants once they’re put into the system.
US District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to stop placing children in hotels by no later than Sept. 15. Gee made an exception for one to two-night stays while children are in transit or before being put on flights.
Gee also ordered US immigration authorities to transfer all immigrant children, whether they arrived at the border alone or with a parent or guardian, currently detained at hotels to licensed facilities "as expeditiously as possible."
Under a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) order, the government has been quickly sending immigrants, adults and children, apprehended at the border back to their countries without the ability to start an immigration claim in the US. The order has effectively blocked immigrants from staying in the country, citing the need to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Friday's order does not stop the Trump administration from continuing to quickly expel immigrant children back to their home country and the practice is expected to continue.
Judge Gee oversees a 1997 court settlement known as the Flores agreement that limits how long the government can detain children for and sets standards for the conditions under which they can be held. The issue over whether the government can detain immigrant children in hotel falls under her purview, Gee said, the legality of quickly expelling them to their countries does not.
The pandemic may require temporary emergency changes to the immigration system, said Judge Gee, but “That is no excuse for DHS to skirt the fundamental humanitarian protections that the Flores agreement guarantees for minors in their custody, especially when there is no persuasive evidence that hoteling is safer than licensed facilities.”
An independent monitor overseeing the conditions under which the US detains immigrant children in a report issued last month said detaining unaccompanied minors in hotels is not an appropriate way to care for kids of different ages and developmental stages.
US border agents have been immediately sending single adults back to Mexico or Canada. Unaccompanied immigrant minors and some families with children have been sent to hotels before being flown to their countries on an ICE deportation flight.
Typically, for someone to be formally deported from the US, they would first have to go through the immigration system. However, the CDC's coronavirus order has cut immigrants off from that process.
Previously, immigrant children who traveled to the border alone and apprehended by border authorities would have been allowed to seek protection in the US.
The use of hotels to detain children has been widely criticized by immigrant advocates and attorneys. And a report filed in federal court revealed that the hotel system is larger than previously thought, with unaccompanied minors having been detained in more than 25 hotels in three states, including Texas and Arizona.
A 2008 human trafficking law gives unaccompanied minors certain benefits, among them the ability to make an asylum claim in the US to an officer instead of a judge. The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which establishes care, release, and due process rights for unaccompanied immigrant children, also grants minors access to legal counsel while in government custody.
Immigrant children who traveled to the US border alone before the COVID order would also be housed while officials vetted sponsors, usually a family member or in some cases friends, who would take them in.