In March 2020, U.S. officials started using hotels to detain unaccompanied children for days before deportation. According to the Trump administration, they implemented this practice in light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Rather than detaining children in shelters that provided schools and other services, the usual asylum procedures were not followed.
Border agents placed these children in rooms without allowing them to request immigration protections or asylum. The administration expelled close to 9,000 children overall without giving them these opportunities. Officials claim that this was done to prevent spread of the virus, but immigration advocates voiced their protests.
What is the Flores Settlement?
In the 1980s, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) was faced with a series of lawsuits after they were accused of mistreating immigrant children. One child in particular had been arrested at the border by the INS and was sent to a juvenile detention center. She was subsequently handcuffed and strip-searched. INS would not grant the girl’s aunt custody, and The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit.
In 1997, the landmark Flores case established a legal precedent and set a national policy that determined how minors in immigration custody would be detained and treated. The federal government was required to place children who were discovered crossing the border into shelters. From there, they were to be sent to their parents, relatives, or licensed programs while their legal proceedings or asylum cases were being worked out without unnecessary delay. During the waiting time, minors were to be provided with a certain quality of life, which included supervision, food, water, toilets, sinks, medical assistance in emergencies, and temperature control.
A Federal Judge Takes Action
On September 4, Judge Dolly Gee of the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles ordered the administration to end their practice of detaining children in hotel rooms by September 28. She ruled that those children were entitled to the protections spelled out in the Flores Settlement. This settlement mandates that the government must keep them in safe, sanitary facilities that are licensed to care for them while they await their release.
Judge Gee acknowledged that the government had to take certain steps to contain the pandemic, but said that it was not an excuse for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to skirt the fundamental humanitarian protections that the Flores Agreement guaranteed for minors in their custody. The Trump administration requested that she put her order on hold while their appeal was pending, but this was turned down. On October 5, an appeals court ordered the administration to stop, refusing to let them continue detaining immigrant children unaccompanied by their parents in hotel rooms.
Judge Gee pointed out that while the court recognized that the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates some temporary, emergency modifications to the immigration system to enhance public safety, the DHS should not be ignoring basic human needs. She added that there was no real evidence proving that staying in hotels was safer than being detained in licensed facilities.
Separating Children from Their Parents
This is not the first time that the administration has been challenged for mistreatment of immigrant children suspected of crossing the border illegally. In 2018, President Trump was criticized for a Customs and Border Protection’s policy that separated children and parents who crossed the border together. In 2019, the administration proposed a rule to detain undocumented families indefinitely, which would eliminate the 20-day limit for holding children that was already in place.
Once the pandemic hit, the administration started removing asylum-seekers, including children. In mid-March, U.S. officials at borders immediately started expelling most unauthorized migrants, citing a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directive. Countless migrants were expelled quickly, regardless of their plans to apply for humanitarian refuge or their ages.
Single adults were expelled to Canada or Mexico, but hundreds of families with minors and unaccompanied children were transported to border area hotels from March through July. CBS reported that there were 660 of these children placed in 2020, with 577 unaccompanied by family members. Although many were teenagers, there were some who were only 10 years old. Detainees were supervised by private contractors hired by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Most of the children were held for a few days; others remained for weeks, awaiting to be flown home to their countries on planes chartered by ICE officials.
What is the Real Problem?
The practice of detaining minor children in hotels until they were deported has ended, but a Texas immigration attorney stated that the true problem was not the hotels, but the expulsions. She explained that even though the DHS was not using hotels for this purpose anymore, it does not mean that the children were being provided with due process or the opportunity to seek asylum. A representative from the National Center for Youth Law criticized the administration, saying that their system had no accountability, and that very young children were being expelled. She called the immigration policies heartless, and that they set a disgraceful example.
A lawyer for the U.S. Justice Department stated that the administration’s policy of expelling unaccompanied minors is part of their plan to fight COVID-19. He explained that turning away people at the borders as quickly as possible was a way of preventing potential sources of infection from entering the country. However, he did not detail why so many children had been detained for weeks.
Philadelphia Immigration Lawyers at the MC Law Group, LLC Fight to Protect Immigrant Families
The COVID-19 pandemic has made things harder for everyone, including immigrant families. At the MC Law Group, LLC, our experienced Philadelphia immigration lawyers know that parents should never be separated from their children. For a free consultation, call us at 215-496-0690 or complete our online form. Located in Philadelphia, we help families throughout the tri-state area, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and nationwide.