EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with a statement from ICE officials and letter from lawmakers.
McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say migrant children who face expulsion from the U.S. are no longer being held at a South Texas hotel from where civil rights advocates say they were forcefully removed on Thursday.
In a statement to Border Report, agency officials said “ICE is not currently holding any individuals at that location,” adding that that unaccompanied minors and families are housed at hotels temporarily while pending their expulsion flights with 59% remaining in the hotels no more than three days.
Advocates argue that the McAllen hotel is being used as a “black box,” whereby migrant children and families are held unlawfully and then expelled without any legal recourse for trying to claim asylum, and without being allowed to consult with a lawyer.
A group of dozen lawmakers agree.
On Friday, 12 lawmakers, including Texas lawmakers U.S. Reps. Vicente Gonzalez, of McAllen, Filemon Vela, of Brownsville, and Veronica Escobar, of El Paso, all Democrats, sent a letter to DHS Acting Secretary Chad Wolf expressing “deep alarm regarding the unlawful detention of asylum-seeking people.”
The letter claimed the children were held in hotels in McAllen, El Paso and Phoenix, including 123 times in McAllen in the past few months and accused the Trump administration of excessive expulsions during this pandemic. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration invoked the Public Health Service Act, which gave border authorities the power to expel those in the country illegally to stop the spread of COVID-19.
“We are gravely concerned that the CDC order is being grossly misused to circumvent asylum and child welfare protections,” the letter said. It also asked Wolf to answer over two dozen questions relating to the holding of children at hotels along the Southwest border.
Gonzalez, in a statement on Friday, said he was “deeply concerned by the events that have taken place. Rest assured, we will be taking the appropriate Congressional action to get to the bottom of this.”
The Associated Press reported on Wednesday that asylum-seeking children and adults were being held by the private contractor hired by the Department of Homeland Security at this McAllen hotel, as well as at least two other hotels on the Southwest border prior to deportation. The hotels have been hired at least 200 times in the past several weeks, according to the report.
Late Friday, ICE officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Border Report that a private contractor, MVM Inc., had been hired by ICE at the hotel and had been involved in a Thursday altercation.
Members of the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project told Border Report they were “violently shoved” into an elevator on Thursday at the Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen while attempting to get the names and information of migrant children who are reportedly being held for expulsion from the United States.
The organization posted a video on social media showing three men forcefully remove TCRP lawyer Andy Udelsman and a staffer from the fourth floor of the hotel. The three men do not identify themselves nor do they show law enforcement badges as they confront the advocates.
“On July 23, an ICE contractor, MVM, Inc. was on location in a hotel in McAllen, TX providing temporary housing for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To ensure the safety of those in custody, contract officers, on a dedicated floor, positioned themselves at both the elevator and exit doors. During this time, two unidentified individuals attempted to forcefully gain access to that area of the building — but the officers were able to move them back to the elevators away from the occupied rooms. Local law enforcement responded and secured the scene. The incident is currently under review,” according to an emailed statement by ICE officials to Border Report.
After they were ejected, Udelsman and other migrant advocates held hand-made signs from a busy highway in front of the hotel in hopes of communicating with those inside the hotel. The advocates held a long roll of white paper with a phone number to the civil rights organization written on others held signs telling those inside to call them with their names and dates of birth and country of origin.
Some people opened curtains in rooms on the top floor and waved back, and some even held signs saying they had no cellphones and needed help.
Migrant advocates claim asylum-seeking children and adults are being held prior to expulsion proceedings Thursday, July 24, 2002 at the Hampton Inn & Suites in McAllen, Texas. Members of the Texas Civil Rights Project held signs urging those inside to call a number to receive free legal advice and to give their information. Some people waved from inside the hotel. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
Border Report asked ICE officials what protocols and standards are being used to monitor the children in the rooms; if the children have been tested for the coronavirus; how long they are being held and if they are slated for deportation.
Friday evening an ICE official said “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is committed to the health and safety of everyone in our custody.”
TCRP officials told Border Report on Thursday that they believed the second, third, fourth and fifth floors of the hotel were housing asylum-seekers.
“We know that at this Hampton Inn Suites is that DHS is using the hotel here as a place to house immigrant children as well as other asylum-seekers before they are illegally expelled back to their home countries without due process or being able to speak to an attorney. So the only way attorneys are able to help is if we are able to get information on people being held in the rooms up there, their name and date of birth and all those details so we can intervene and try to stop their illegal expulsions,” Zenén Jaimes Pérez, advocacy and communications director for TCRP told Border Report.
“The Trump administration is using the COVID pandemic to basically make a black box here in this hotel where people are having their human rights rights violated,” Pérez said.
The hotel is located in Hidalgo County, which is one of the hardest-hit areas for coronavirus infections in all of Texas and the nation right now. On Thursday, 33 more people died from COVID-19 and 813 tested positive, Hidalgo County officials reported. This brings the total death count to 433 in this county of just 860,000 where over 1,000 people remain hospitalized due to the virus.
A court-appointed monitor for immigrant youth filed a report claiming a “lack of oversight” of migrant youth who are being held in hotels in the Southwest, according to the Associated Press.
“Isolating a child alone in a hotel room for 10-14 days can have a more harmful emotional impact than that seen in adults,” according to the report filed Wednesday by Andrea Ordin. She also noted there was no apparent lower age limit for children held at hotels and that ICE had not issued “consistent or formal care requirements” for young children’s hygiene, nutrition, or well-being.
Pérez told Border Report that his organization suspects that hundreds, if not thousands, of asylum-seekers are being held under DHS authority at dozens of hotels across the Southwest.
They said the migrants receive hourly medical screenings and are checked for COVID-19, and provided proper protective equipment to ward off the virus.
Last month the TCRP was among several groups that sued the federal government on behalf of an unaccompanied 13-year-old migrant girl from El Salvador who was expelled to her home country recently without proper processing by DHS officials under a new policy enacted by the Trump administration during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit is one of the nation’s first legal challenges to the Trump administration’s order restricting immigration at the border based on an unprecedented invocation of the Public Health Service Act, which was implemented when border restrictions were put in place March 20 to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Pérez said the organization is trying to ascertain information on other asylum-seekers but cannot file any legal motions without knowing their full name, birth date and country of origin. That is why they were standing outside the McAllen hotel for hours on Thursday evening in the hopes of locating more migrants.
“We have to resort to measures like this to standing outside in the middle of a pandemic. Hoping to get in touch with those inside so they can exercise their legal rights,” Pérez said.
ICE said any migrant child who has a lawyer is allowed to contact them.