PHOENIX – Legal advocacy groups have sued the U.S. government to try to stop the expulsion of children believed to be detained in Arizona and Texas hotel rooms by the Trump administration under an emergency declaration citing the novel coronavirus.
An Associated Press report published last week described three Hampton Inn & Suites hotels where a federal contractor has held unaccompanied minors awaiting deportation, which has been fast-tracked amid the global pandemic.
The report described children as young as 1 being held for days at a time in hotels before being deported, a service provided by federal transportation contractor MVM Inc. Records showed hotels had been used nearly 200 times in Phoenix, El Paso and McAllen, Texas.
The owners of the Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen, Texas, said on Friday night that they had ended any reservations on rooms used to detain minors.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that all children had been taken away from the McAllen hotel, two days after the Associated Press report.
Managers of a Hampton Inn in Phoenix told The Arizona Republic of the USA TODAY Network the hotel could not comment, citing guest privacy.
ICE repeatedly refused to answer questions about where contractors have taken the children, citing a potential security risk.
“The Trump administration is holding children in secret in hotels, refusing to give lawyers access to them so it can expel them back to danger without even a chance for the children to show they warrant asylum,” said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit on behalf of the Texas Civil Rights Project.
Gelernt said suing on behalf of unnamed children was necessary “because the government is refusing to provide any information about the children.” The lawsuit was filed in Washington federal court, and Gelernt said he would seek to include any minors detained at the hotel as of Thursday.
Whether held by shelter operators long term or transportation contractors, immigrant children in federal custody fall into a separate legal realm from state systems that handle foster care and other custody issues.
That reality means federal handling of migrant children often eludes real scrutiny, some advocates say.
As Leecia Welch, an attorney at the nonprofit National Center for Youth Law, told the AP: "They’ve created a shadow system in which there’s no accountability for expelling very young children."
Arizona State Rep. Kelli Butler, who raised concerns two years ago about oversight of the federal shelters for immigrant children, said the latest report is far more disturbing.
"What are they doing in hotel rooms with babies and teenage girls?" the Paradise Valley Democrat asked. "The thoughts are unimaginable."
At least the federal shelters have a level of state oversight, and the workers are backgrounded, Butler said. But that's not the case for the hotel arrangement, done through a contract overseen by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, she said.
"We don't know what they're doing with the kids," she said of MVM and ICE. "Are they deporting them? Are they being trafficked? It's so open-ended."
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Who gets the kids?
The federal custody of immigrant children begins when they arrive at the border. Some may arrive on their own, as happened in a wave of so-called unaccompanied minors in 2014.
In other cases, children are separated from their parents. This was particularly at issue in 2018, under a short-lived U.S. "zero-tolerance" policy. That policy mandated that everyone caught entering the country illegally was being referred for criminal prosecution, even parents arriving with children. Because a court ruling bars the government from holding children in jail, thousands of children were then separated from their parents at the border and placed in government custody in shelters.
Arizona's Department of Child Safety says it does not have jurisdiction over the children who show up at the border.
The federal government runs a separate system through the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
HHS contracts with private companies to shelter immigrant children. Southwest Key operates many of those shelters across seven states. During zero-tolerance, separated children flooded into shelters run by Southwest Key and others.
However, with the onset of the new coronavirus pandemic, the federal government has moved to more quickly deport illegal border crossers. That duty falls to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which in turn has contracted with MVM Inc., a defense contractor, to care for the children until they can be shipped out of the country.
That care, according to the documents obtained by the AP, included housing the children in hotels, even as shelters meant for their care sat empty.
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Who cares for the kids?
When DCS takes a child into state custody, the child is either placed with other family members or with a licensed foster home. Group homes are a last resort, but those, too, are licensed.
Foster parents and group-home managers must undergo training and meet state standards before they can have a child in their home.
Southwest Key staffs its shelters with people who have been trained in child care and have to pass background checks based on a valid fingerprint clearance card.
During the pandemic, shelter populations are low because of the rapid-deportation policy. With many staffers working from home due to safety concerns, Southwest Key has used the time to provide online training in such things as the latest behavioral-health techniques and child care, said Neil Nowlin, a Southwest Key spokesman.
In contrast, MVM Inc. is a defense contractor that specializes in transportation. In the AP report, ICE officials would not comment on whether MVM staffers were trained in child care or had to undergo FBI background checks.
Two years ago, MVM admitted it had "occasionally" housed immigrant children overnight in a central Phoenix office building, even though it previously had said it used the building only for short stopovers. It then canceled its lease on the building.
Who's checking things out?
As noted above, DCS licenses foster and group homes. That gives the state control over a placement if it suspects there are health or safety concerns.
Although Southwest Key operates as a federal contractor, the state has some regulatory control. The state Department of Health Services licenses the shelters as child-care facilities. That oversight extends to the physical premises, not to allegations of abuse and neglect, which are referred to local police.
MVM is not licensed by the state or the federal government as a child-care facility.
Two years ago, Southwest Key shelters came under intense public scrutiny during the Trump administration's zero-tolerance police.
An Arizona Republic investigation at the time revealed video of workers dragging and shoving some migrant children.
State health authorities also threatened to revoke the licenses of all 13 Southwest Key shelters operating in the state after the company didn't provide proof its employees had provided valid fingerprint cards, as required.
A settlement led to Southwest permanently closing two shelters and paying a $73,000 fine. The company also had to get state approval before admitting any more children, agree to unannounced inspections, hire on-site inspectors at each of its locations and hire an outside consultant to help it improve its health and safety standards. It was later cleared to house more children.
Today, the shift to a rapid deportation policy has cut the number of children in federal shelters.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not return inquiries about how many immigrant children are housed in Arizona shelters. But the contracts continue, along with the added contract that ICE issued to MVM.
Butler questioned whether it's a good use of taxpayer dollars to pay two different contractors to deal with immigrant children — especially when one of them has fewer residents and the other has no apparent oversight.
"It sounds like an undercover operation," she said.
Contributing: Arizona Republic staff; Associated Press
Follow reporter Mary Jo Pitzl on Twitter @maryjpitzl
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: US sued after report of detained migrant kids at Hampton Inn hotels