Law360 (August 17, 2020, 9:40 PM EDT) -- The American Civil Liberties Union hit the Trump administration with a proposed class action alleging that the federal government is skirting immigration law by detaining unaccompanied children in hotels for days before deporting them amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The ACLU, representing a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy who came to the U.S. unaccompanied to escape persecution, told a D.C. federal court that special powers given to the government during public health crises don't allow it to detain unaccompanied children in hotels and deny them access to legal proceedings.
Even during a public health crisis, immigrants who are trying to escape torture or persecution must be given opportunity to seek relief in the U.S., according to the Friday complaint, which targets the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Unaccompanied children are entitled to specific procedures before they can be expelled from the country, and must be provided critical safeguards to facilitate their ability to seek humanitarian relief," the ACLU said.
The ACLU said their client should have been put in a children's facility until he could be reunited with his father, who is living in the U.S., or with another relative and be allowed to apply to stay in the U.S.
Under the law, unaccompanied children are supposed to be placed in the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours of being apprehended by immigration authorities, according to the suit.
Rather than denying immigrants their rights, the government could implement other safety measures such as social distancing, face masks and gloves to protect border agents during the COVID-19 pandemic, the ACLU said.
Earlier this month, the federal government defended detaining unaccompanied children in hotels during the pandemic, saying that provisions under Title 42 related to public health give it the authority to deport the minors without going through removal proceedings.
The Guatemalan boy's attorney, Karla Vargas of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement to Law360 on Monday that immigration attorneys and nonprofits in South Texas have been "frantically" searching for asylum-seekers such as her client.
"It's been a massive effort to clear the way for this class action suit on behalf of the children, because we're investigating government agencies who routinely lie and have no accountability to anyone," Vargas said.
Representatives for the government did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
The Guatemalan boy is represented by Stephen B. Kang, Cody Wofsy, Morgan Russell, Adrienne Harrold, Andre Segura, Kathryn Huddleston, Rochelle Garza, Brantley S. Drake, Celso J. Perez, Lee Gelernt and Daniel A. Galindo, Scott Michelman and Arthur B. Spitzer of the ACLU, Robert Silverman of Oxfam America, and Karla M. Vargas and Efren C. Olivares of Texas Civil Rights Project.
Counsel information for the government was not immediately available on Monday.
The case is P.J.E.S. et al. v. Wolf et al., case number 1:20-cv-02245, in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
--Editing by Haylee Pearl.
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