Migrants peak out of the window of the fourth floor of a Hampton Inn in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday July 23, 2020.

The US detained hundreds of migrant children in hotels as the pandemic flared

Updated 12:20 PM ET, Thu September 3, 2020

(CNN)Hundreds of migrant children have been held in hotels and guarded by government contractors in recent months as part of a secretive new system that advocates warn puts kids in danger.

Immigrant and civil rights groups accuse the US government of using the pandemic to create a shadow immigration system that skirts the law, with authorities denying vulnerable children protections they're entitled to and rushing to kick them out of the country.
"These children are being held at what are essentially black sites, with no access to the outside world. And not only no access to the outside world, but no access to the immigration system," says Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project.
"This whole process is egregious, period," Vargas says. "It is a violation...of every single protection that these children have."
Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to respond to CNN's questions about the use of hotels to detain children and families, citing pending litigation. But officials have defended the practice in court filings, arguing that they're protecting the safety of kids in custody while following new public health guidelines.
Court documents obtained by CNN reveal that detaining children in hotels has become increasingly common during the coronavirus pandemic. According to recent court filings, more than 25 hotels in three states -- Arizona, Texas and Louisiana -- are currently being used to detain immigrant children.
More than 570 unaccompanied minors and more than 80 children traveling with family members have been detained in hotels since officials began invoking a public health law to restrict immigration in March. Some children have been held in hotels for a few days, others for weeks.
Under the new approach, most children are expelled without ever getting a chance to speak with lawyers or a judge, according to advocates who are fighting the practice in court. For months, they've been trying to piece together details about what's going on. But they say much remains hidden from the public.
"No one has eyes on these children," says attorney Neha Desai of the National Center for Youth Law. "If there's no one who has the ability to bear witness and document what's happening, no mechanism for enforcing the rights of these detained children, there is incredible room for abuse and/or neglect."

Families frantically searched for kids in custody

A 16-year-old from Honduras who was held in El Paso hotels for 28 days told CNN he could hear the fear in his father's voice when they spoke on the phone.
They were only allowed to talk for 10 minutes every day, he says, in a monitored speaker-phone call.
"People were listening the whole time. ... I couldn't give him any information about where I was," says the teen, whose attorneys asked that he be identified only by his initials, J.B.B.C., to protect his safety because he is seeking asylum in the United States.
"I couldn't tell him where the hotel was or the name of it or anything," he says. "He was really worried. He wanted to know where I was. When I told him I couldn't tell him, he got even more worried."
"I felt suffocated being there," 16-year-old J.B.B.C. says of the days when he was detained in hotels in El Paso, Texas. The teen, whose attorneys asked that he be identified only by his initials to protect his safety, is shown here in his native Honduras. He is seeking asylum in the United States.
This isn't the first time immigration authorities have detained children and families in hotels. It's drawn criticism from advocacy groups before -- and promises from major hotel chains to pull back from the practice. But the issue drew renewed attention from lawmakers and immigrant rights groups in July after reports detailing the increased use of hotel detentions from The Associated Press and an independent, court-appointed monitor tasked with assessing the welfare of migrant children in custody.
In a July 22 court filing, the monitor wrote that what once was a small, stopgap measure for children being transported to ICE deportation flights has become a more widespread practice during the coronavirus pandemic as officials use a public health law to detain migrants apprehended at the border and swiftly expel them from the United States.
Immigrant rights organizations say they learned hotels were being used to detain many children swept up in the new regulations as they started getting frantic calls from families who were unable to locate loved ones.
"There's very little information about where these kids are ... We're scrambling to try to find the child," says Lisa Frydman, vice president for international programs at Kids in Need of Defense. "They could be at risk of being put on a plane within hours."
Before the pandemic, children and families who were taken into custody at the border — like this group awaiting processing in 2019 -- had a chance to seek asylum in the US. Now, most are expelled without court hearings.
Guerline Jozef, executive director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, says she's had heartbreaking conversations with many families desperate for answers. People detained in hotels are particularly difficult to find, she says, because they aren't assigned the identification numbers given to other detained migrants who are being officially processed in the immigration system.
"They were nowhere to be found. You are literally in a mode where you have to find those people, but you cannot find them," she says. "It's trauma. It's stressful. You have to tell the relative, 'I'm sorry. I cannot find the family member, and I'm still looking.'"
ICE referred questions about identification numbers to Customs and Border Protection. A CBP spokesperson declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.

Why lawyers held a banner with their phone number outside one hotel

And sometimes, even when kids are found, attorneys struggle to reach them.