Feds Move Migrant Children From Hotel To Refugee Agency

By Alyssa Aquino
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Law360 (July 27, 2020, 9:45 PM EDT) -- The Trump administration said Monday it was transferring migrant children held in a Texas hotel into the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement after it was hit with allegations decrying the minors' expedited removal from the U.S. under a coronavirus health order.

Government attorneys told a D.C. federal court that dozens of unaccompanied minors would no longer be subject to fast-tracked removal proceedings under a public health order permitting immigration officers to swiftly turn away migrants, including asylum-seekers and children, from the U.S. border.

Instead, the minors "are being processed or will be processed under the immigration procedures set out in Title 8 of the U.S. Code," the attorneys said, referring to the statute directing the government to move unaccompanied minors into ORR shelters, or to relatives in the U.S., while they pursue asylum claims.

The development comes on the heels of the American Civil Liberties Union's lawsuit seeking a halt of the expedited removals, saying the proceedings moved too quickly for children to meaningfully access counsel.

The Texas Civil Rights Project, whose attorneys say they were were prevented from contacting the children while they were being held in a Hampton Inn & Suites hotel in McAllen, Texas, praised the development on Twitter.

"This is a clear admission of wrongdoing by the Trump administration," the advocacy group said. "However, we know there were many other families that were detained in that hotel and might still be disappeared. We'll continue our efforts to stop this."

Representatives for U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement did not immediately respond to Monday requests for comment.

In a late Friday suit, the ACLU accused the Trump administration of depriving dozens of unaccompanied minors of their asylum rights and access to counsel by placing them in the fast-tracked removal proceedings and holding them in the McAllen Hampton hotel as they awaited deportation.

The migrant children were set to be deported under Title 42, a rarely used public health statute permitting the government to prevent the entry of individuals to curb the spread of disease. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the Trump administration invoked the statute in March.

The ACLU decried the Title 42 expulsions as creating a "shadow immigration system" that attorneys were unfamiliar with. Even if Title 42 allows the government to place certain migrants in fast-tracked removal proceedings, the statute cannot cover unaccompanied minor children, whose removal orders must be reviewed by an immigration judge under anti-trafficking law, the organization said.

The government was also depriving children of opportunities to access legal counsel by detaining them in the McAllen hotel, according to the ACLU's complaint. While attorneys could easily access migrant children held in shelters, nonprofit attorneys were prevented from speaking with the minors in the hotel, the ACLU said. 

Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., the owner of the Hampton Inn hotel trademark, confirmed Friday that the McAllen hotel accepted reservations from an ICE contractor to house the minors as they awaited transportation elsewhere.

The hotel operators separately wrote on Facebook that they have canceled the contractor's reservations and will no longer accept similar requests in the future.

The ACLU further alleged that the government was increasing migrant children's risk of contracting the virus by holding them in hotels as they arrange their deportation.

On average, minors were held in hotel detention for 4½ days, and in one case, a 5-year-old was detained for 19 days at the McAllen hotel, the complaint said. In contrast, standard immigration procedures require the government to release unaccompanied minors to a shelter or a relative within three days, the ACLU said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection detained over 1,600 migrant children in June, but only 61 were moved to a shelter, according to the complaint.

The ACLU is also representing two minors in separate legal challenges to their removal under the Title 42 order.

In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barred migrants without proper travel documentation from entering the U.S. under Title 42.

Human rights and refugee advocates protested the border block, decrying the measure as violating the U.S.' obligations not to deport migrants to danger. The border restrictions initially exempted unaccompanied children, but the CDC walked back the carveout, saying that children who entered the U.S. alone could be sent back. 

The children are represented by Lee Gelernt, Daniel A. Galindo, Celso J. Perez, Stephen B. Kang, Cody Wofsy, Morgan Russell and Adrienne Harrold of the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation; Andrew Segura, Kathryn Huddleston, Rochelle Garza and Brantley Shaw Drake of the ACLU Foundation of Texas Inc.; Scott Michelman and Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU Foundation of the District of Columbia; Jamie Crook, Blaine Bookey and Karen Musalo of the Center for Gender & Refugee Studies; and Robert Silverman of Oxfam America.

The government is represented by Jean Lin, Kevin Snell and Bradley Craigmyle of the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Division.

The case is Texas Civil Rights Project v. Chad F. Wolf et al., case number 1:20-cv-02035, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

---Additional reporting by Suzanne Monyak. Editing by Abbie Sarfo.

For a reprint of this article, please contact reprints@law360.com.

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