HOUSTON (AP) – Legal groups sued the U.S. government Friday in an attempt to prevent the rapid expulsion of children that the Trump administration detained in hotel rooms under an emergency declaration citing the coronavirus.
The groups sought a temporary restraining order on behalf of â€œunnamed childrenâ€ held at the Hampton Inn & Suites in the Texas border city of McAllen. The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the McAllen hotel is one of three Hampton Inns that the government has used nearly 200 times to detain children so it can rapidly deport them to their countries of origin without giving them the chance to seek refuge in the U.S.
It’s unclear where children held in the hotel now are. Late Friday, the company that operates the McAllen hotel said it had canceled all business relating to the detention of children. Hilton, which owns the Hampton Inn brand, said it was informing all of its franchise owners that company policy â€œhas always been that hotels should not be used as detention centers or for detaining individuals.â€
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed that the private contractor it hired, MVM Inc., is no longer holding children at the McAllen hotel. But it did not respond to several questions about where it had taken the children instead.
â€œThe 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,â€ 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 â€œbecause the government is refusing to provide any information about the children.â€ The lawsuit was filed in Washington federal court.
Under federal anti-trafficking law and a court settlement, most children who cross the U.S.-Mexico border are supposed to go to facilities operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and eventually placed with family sponsors.
But the Trump administration says it must expel children to prevent the spread of COVID-19, citing an emergency declaration in March by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At least 2,000 children have been expelled since.
Some children are as young as 1 and others have been held in hotels two weeks or longer, according to government data obtained by AP for April and June.
Roberto Lopez of the Texas Civil Rights Project said when he entered the hotel last Friday, he saw people in scrubs going room to room on the fourth and fifth floors of the Hampton Inn caring for children. He saw one small child holding on to a gate in a doorway as an adult on the other side played with him.
But on Thursday, when another advocate from the group went to the fourth floor, three men dressed in plainclothes stopped him, according to a video the group posted online. After the men asked for his identity, the advocate yelled in Spanish that he was a lawyer trying to help. The video shows the men in plainclothes shoving him and forcing him into an elevator, repeatedly refusing to identify themselves.
On Friday, ICE described the lawyer and another person with him as people who â€œattempted to forcefully gain accessâ€ to an area its contract officers were restricting.
A group of Democratic congressmen wrote Friday to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf expressing â€œdeep alarmâ€ about the detention of children in hotels.
â€œWe are gravely concerned that the CDC order is being grossly misused to circumvent asylum and child welfare protections,â€ the letter said.