Several migrant children have been detained in hotels by the government as the pandemic started spreading in recent months. Advocates warn that this secretive new system puts kids in danger. Even the civil rights groups accused the government of creating a shadow immigration system. This is likely to deny the protection of vulnerable children. Senior attorney at Texas Civil Rights Project, Karla Marisol Vargas, argues that these kids are being held at places that have no access to the outside world and the immigration system. However, officials have argued that they are protecting the safety of kids while following the public health guidelines during these pandemic times.
As per media reports, children have been detained in hotels during the pandemic, and more than 25 hotels in three states are now being used for such facilities. As many as 570 unaccompanied minors and other 80 children traveling with family members have been detained in hotels. Some of them are held for only a few days and others a few weeks while authorities are trying to remove migrant children due to the new pandemic guidelines swiftly.
According to advocates, most children are not given a chance to speak with lawyers, and they are expelled quickly. A teenager who was in similar custody for nearly 28 days said that they were allowed to talk to parents on a monitored phone.
However, this practice is not new for the immigration authorities, and they have earlier also used hotels to detain children and families. The issue was criticized by advocacy groups earlier, and major hotel chains planned to step out of this practice. In recent times, the issue has cropped up again as it has become a widespread practice to use such hotels to detain children and send them back swiftly from the US, citing the new public health law guidelines.
Earlier, children and families who were detained in this manner had an opportunity to seek asylum in the US. However, they are now expelled without any sort of court hearings. In this situation, it has also become difficult to identify the migrants and track them as they are not assigned identification numbers. When some of them were traced recently to a hotel, advocates were not able to get in touch with the children. This prompted them to hold up placards with their phone numbers. However, some children were seen holding up signs saying that they did not have a phone. As per the ICE guidelines, such individuals need to be provided with phone access, and there should not be any limit on the number of calls they make during that period.
Hilton hotels have decided to do away with such arrangements after the recent protests against such practices. They have said in a statement that all of their facilities will reject such offers in the future, and they will not allow their hotels to be used as detention centers. As per government statistics, nearly 330 children were detained in the hotels during the recent pandemic. However, some kids who spoke later to the advocates said that they did not face any harassment from the authorities during the detention period. Even though they had some restrictions with regard to leaving their rooms, they were given proper food and other facilities.
Advocates, however, argue that they are not able to get first-hand information about such facilities, and they have to depend on what information is provided by the government in such cases. Independent advocates and monitors are not allowed to visit the facilities during this pandemic. Lawyers say that the situation in licensed and regularly monitored facilities is good, and the problem comes with using such hotels as detention centers as everything becomes shrouded in secrecy.
Government officials have said that the conditions inside the hotels used as detention centers are good enough, and the children are given proper food, and they have warm beds. They are even provided television and access to video games and other things to keep them occupied until they are expelled from the facility. They are only trying to prevent them from getting into contact with the general public as per the CDC guidelines.
ICE official Mellissa Harper said in a court filing last month that backpacks, clothes, and sanitary supplies are given to kids. Apart from that, they are also provided three hot meals every day, along with snacks and water. Even though there are not many complaints of abuse by the authorities in general, many activists have a problem with the manner in which these kids are being sent back without checking if it is safe for them to return to their native places.
However, advocates have a problem with the detention centers being handled by contractors. As they may not have the required training to handle children, it can lead to abuse or other issues. The Department of Homeland Security is also investigating the use of such hotels as detention centers. Advocates also have highlighted another major problem associated with the new detention centers, and this creates a situation where the migrants have no access to legal help, and they are just expelled at the earliest without any hearing.
As per the data from US Customs and Border Protection, nearly 100000 people, including adults and children, have been expelled from the US till July after the pandemic started in March. However, officials have not updated the specific details regarding the number of children expelled from the US in this manner. According to advocates, the Trump administration uses the public health guidelines during the pandemic as an excuse to expel the immigrants harshly.
The Trump administration is not very keen to listen to such arguments, and they are trying their best to remove the migrants as early as possible from the US. The authorities say that keeping them for long can lead to the risk of infection spreading to the general population during these pandemic times, and they don’t want to take that risk in this situation.