The Trump administration has been using major hotel chains to detain children and families taken into custody at the border, creating a largely unregulated shadow system of detention and swift expulsions without the safeguards that are intended to protect the most vulnerable migrants.
Government data obtained by The New York Times, along with court documents, show that hotel detentions overseen by a private security company have ballooned in recent months under an aggressive border closure policy related to the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 100,000 migrants, including children and families, have been summarily expelled from the country under the measure. But rather than deterring additional migration, the policy appears to have caused border crossings to surge, in part because it eliminates some of the legal consequences for repeat attempts at illegal crossings.
The increase in hotel detentions is likely to intensify scrutiny of the policy, which legal advocacy groups have already challenged in court, saying it places children in an opaque system with few protections and violates U.S. asylum laws by returning them to life-threatening situations in their home countries.
Children as young as a year old — often arriving at the border with no adult guardians — are being put in hotels under the supervision of transportation workers who are not licensed to provide child care. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials say the children are being adequately cared for during the hotel stays and emphasize that their swift expulsion is necessary to protect the country from the spread of the coronavirus.
Federal authorities have resorted to using hotels during previous spikes in immigration and as staging areas for short periods of time ahead of traditional deportations; the conditions are in many ways better than the cold, concrete Border Patrol holdings cells where many migrants have been left to languish in the past.
But because the hotels exist outside the formal detention system, they are not subject to policies designed to prevent abuse in federal custody or those requiring that detainees be provided access to phones, healthy food, medical and mental health care.
Parents and lawyers have no way of finding the children or monitoring their well-being while they are in custody.
The existence of the hotel detentions came to light last month, but documents reviewed by The New York Times reveal the extent to which major hotel chains are participating. The federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has detained at least 860 migrants at a Quality Suites in San Diego, Hampton Inns in Phoenix, McAllen and El Paso, Texas, a Comfort Suites Hotel in Miami, a Best Western in Los Angeles and an Econo Lodge in Seattle.
Though the data does not specify ages, the official who provided it, as well as several former immigration officials who recently left the Trump administration, said it was likely that most or all were either children traveling alone or with their parents, because single adult migrants tend to be housed in Border Patrol holding stations.
The administration’s pandemic-related border closure policy calls for migrants to be expelled from the country, rather than put into traditional, formal deportation proceedings. Parents often send their children to the American border alone because they are more likely to win asylum if they are not traveling with adults.
Under the new policy, most children are instead being put on planes and returned to their home countries, primarily in Central America, though some have been handed over to child welfare authorities in Mexico, leading parents into desperate efforts to track their children down.
Searching for the children has been made nearly impossible because they are not being assigned identification numbers that would normally allow families to track their locations in the highly regulated federal detention system.
Only rarely used in the past, the practice of expulsions has surged under the Trump administration’s coronavirus-related border ban. Unlike deportations, expulsions are meant to take place very soon after a migrant is encountered by immigration agents. But delays in securing flights necessary to return the increasing number of migrants now arriving at the border have led the administration to turn to MVM Inc., a private corporation known mostly as a transportation and security company, to detain migrant children and families.
Started in the late 1970s by three former Secret Service agents, MVM has grown substantially.
The company now has contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars with nearly all of the federal agencies involved in immigration enforcement. It has secured at least $1.9 billion in federal contracts since 2008.
“The reputation was, ‘You ask it, they do it,’” said Claire Trickler-McNulty, a former deputy assistant director of the office of detention planning and policy at ICE. “No task was too big for MVM.”
Before the pandemic hit, MVM was the primary company used to transport migrant families encountered at the border to family detention centers. Its security workers oversee the tent courts that were erected to process cases of asylum seekers who have been made to wait out their cases in Mexico. In 2018, when a federal judge ordered the reunification of families that had been separated by immigration authorities along the border, MVM transported parents to staging facilities near the shelters where their children were being detained.
Despite its substantial transportation portfolio, MVM does not have much experience detaining migrant children. In a previous foray in 2018, the company was criticized for detaining children overnight in a vacant office park in Phoenix.
Two laws weigh heavily on the treatment of detained migrant children. The Prison Rape Elimination Act requires procedures to allow them to independently report physical or sexual abuse by government workers or contractors. To comply with the law, migrant detention centers post phone numbers to abuse hotlines and provide detainees with free access to phones. (Public data show that 105 such reports were made against government immigration contractors in 2018, the most recent year of available data.)
The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act provides safeguards to ensure that detained children who could be abused or tortured in their home countries are not sent back into harm’s way.
Neither of these protections appear to apply to the informal hotel stays overseen by MVM.
“A transportation vendor should not be in charge of changing the diaper of a 1-year old, giving bottles to babies or dealing with the traumatic effects they might be dealing with,” said Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, another former deputy assistant director for custody management at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who worked with MVM during his time at the agency.
“I’m worried kids may be exposed to abuse, neglect, including sexual abuse, and we will have no idea,” he said.
A spokesman for MVM said the company’s contract with ICE bars representatives from responding to media requests.
ICE officials provided a statement explaining that MVM workers are trained in the requirements of the Prison Rape Elimination Act. But the company is not contractually required to follow its rules.
The statement said company employees are instructed “extensively” on how to handle situations where detained migrants would be left particularly vulnerable in their presence, such as when the migrants are bathing or breastfeeding. It says red flags indicating potential torture or abuse could be reported to the guards, who would then share the information with ICE. But there appear to be no mechanisms for detainees to report abuse by guards, except to other guards.
An ICE spokesman said no more than two children could be housed in a hotel room at any given time, but at least one migrant teenager said he was detained overnight in a hotel room in Miami with two other young migrants and three guards.
Expulsions have come to replace formal deportation proceedings as the primary way of processing migrants who try to enter the United States during the pandemic. About 109,621 people have been expelled from the southwest border since the restrictive policy went into effect.
Announced as a policy to prevent the coronavirus from spreading further in the United States, the border directive adopted in March, which relies on the authority available to the surgeon general during public health emergencies, was intended to block the flow of most nonessential travel across the northern and southern borders. Seeking asylum from violence or persecution is not considered essential under the policy.
But even with the restrictions in place, millions of people continue to cross the border each month, calling into question whether the expulsion policy can truly mitigate the spread of the virus.
And the Trump administration has been testing migrant children to confirm that they have not contracted the coronavirus before expelling them, as was first reported by ProPublica. If the children have been confirmed to be virus-free, they are then being expelled. Some children who test positive have remained in the hotels to quarantine, while other have been placed in government shelters for migrant children, as was the practice before the pandemic.
Unlike children, many adults have been deported and expelled despite having tested positive for the coronavirus.
While the practice of detaining migrant children and families in hotels has been previously reported, the fact that so many well-known hotels are part of the program only became apparent with the release of the list. Some of the hotels listed appeared to be unaware of the program.
After facing scrutiny for detaining dozens of migrant children and parents in its hotels in McAllen, Phoenix and El Paso, Hilton, whose participation was previously reported by The Associated Press, said that the decision to do so had been made by franchisees. The corporation said it would stop working with the federal government to detain migrants.
A legal challenge on behalf of the children detained at the hotel in McAllen was settled earlier this month when the government agreed to release them. One unaccompanied child and the few families that remained were transported to a family detention center in Karnes City, Texas.
A spokeswoman for the Choice Hotel chain, which has been used to detain migrants in Miami, Seattle and San Diego, said in response to the data obtained by The Times, “It has been our position that hotels should not be used as detention facilities, and we are not aware that any hotels in our franchise system are being used in this capacity. We ask that our franchised hotels, which are independently owned and operated, only be used for their intended purpose.”
Mike Karicher, a spokesman for the Hampton Inn in Phoenix, one hotel franchise that has been used by MVM, said management was not aware of the activity, and does not support or wish to be associated with it. “The hotel has confirmed that they will not accept similar business moving forward,” he said.
The American Hotel and Lodging Association, an industry trade group, said it opposed the use of hotels as detention centers and has sent out guidance to its members on “red flags” that could indicate rooms being used for this purpose.
The expulsion policy is part of a sweeping crackdown by the administration on both legal and illegal immigration that appears to have intensified in recent months. Confidential documents submitted by a court-appointed monitor in a long-running federal case warned that the use of hotels for detaining children had become prevalent.
“Begun as a relatively small, stopgap measure to assist in the transfer of children to ICE flights, the temporary housing program has been transformed by the Title 42 expulsion policies into an integral component of the immigration detention system for U.A.C.s in U.S. custody,” the monitor wrote, using the acronym for unaccompanied alien children.
There have been several legal attempts to challenge the expulsions, especially of children, including one case in which a judge recently appointed by President Trump sided against government lawyers. But the government avoided an injunction blocking the policy in each case by agreeing to release the individual children named as plaintiffs, rendering the challenges moot.
Immigrant advocates say that the government has also agreed to release individual children who have been discovered in the expulsion system.
But there are many others whose locations are unknown.
Lee Gelernt, who is leading the legal challenge against the policy for the A.C.L.U., said the primary problem is that children are not being offered a way to obtain asylum from unsafe conditions in their home countries, as is required by law. “As dangerous as it is for children to be secretly held in hotels,” he said, “the ultimate problem is that they are expelled without a hearing, regardless of where they are held.”
Kitty Bennett contributed research.