Empty beds at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in 2016
Empty beds at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in 2016 — Image courtesy of the Department of Health and Human Services (Public Domain)

(Originally Published on Medium)

Hotels were used 186 times while 10,000 beds for children remained empty at government shelters

Despite anti-trafficking laws and decades-old legal precedent, the Trump administration has been detaining migrant children as young as 1-year-old in hotels before deporting them, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. By circumventing the rules that govern the treatment of migrant children the administration is putting them at risk for abuse.

Advocates and lawyers argue that holding migrant children in hotels exposes them to trauma as they are not properly equipped to hold them and those attending to them are contractors for which we have no evidence of their ability to care for children. Civil rights groups have challenged the use of hotels under the Flores court settlement agreement.

The Flores Settlement Agreement (FSA) has been in place for more than two decades. It sets limits on the length of time and the conditions in which children can be cared for in immigration detention centers. The Trump administration sought to terminate the FSA’s legal safeguards through proposed regulations in September 2018. The administration attempted to eliminate the provision that requires children to be transferred to non-secure licensed facilities within five days of apprehension. Trump’s proposed regulations included policies that allowed the government to incarcerate more families for longer periods.

On September 27, 2019, U.S. District Court Judge Dolly M. Gee issued a permanent injunction blocking the Trump administration from implementing the new regulations expanding its ability to detain migrant children with their parents for indefinite periods. The Justice Department had urged the judge to allow the Trump administration to withdraw from the FSA.What Racial Injustice Really Looks Like in AmericaThe oppressive over-policing of minority communities is just the beginningmedium.com

The FSA also mandates favoring the release of migrant children to a parent, legal guardian, adult relative, or licensed program. Upon taking a minor into custody, a prompt and continuous effort toward family reunification and release must be made and documented. Maintaining up-to-date records of minors held for longer than 72 hours, including biographical information and hearing dates, are also required. The settlement lays out minimum standards for licensed programs specifying that facilities must comply with all applicable child welfare laws and regulations.

Under the agreement, the government is required to provide physical care, food, clothing, grooming items, routine medical and dental care, immunizations, medication, individualized needs assessments for each child, educational assessments and plans, statements of religious preferences, assessments identifying family members in the U.S., education services and communication skills, English language training, recreation and leisure time, and access to social workers and counseling sessions. Visitation and contact with family members — regardless of immigration status — along with family reunification services are also required.

As America now knows, over the last two decades CBP and ICE have rarely met the guidelines outlined in the FSA and it’s only gotten worse under the Trump administration. While Republicans and Democrats alike have rarely adhered to the agreement, no previous administration has taken the inhumanity of the U.S. immigration system as far as Trump has.

History of Abusing Children

In October of 2019, the ACLU of San Diego obtained 35,000 pages of documents related to allegations of abuse made against CBP officers by people in custody (or by people on their behalf) between 2009 and 2014. While the documents predate the Trump administration, the ACLU says the reports are an indication of a broader pattern of abuse within CBP, one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the country. Some of the allegations contained in the documents include coercion, abuse, excessive force, and being beaten while handcuffed.

In 2013, a Guatemalan boy says he was verbally abused and strip-searched by two agents who accused him of lying about his age and using falsified documents. They then proceeded to tell him that he would be raped by an adult detainee if he didn’t tell them the truth.

In May 2013, a Mexican minor says officers verbally harassed him while driving to a processing station. According to the incident report filed by an officer, agents removed him from the van and told him he was about to be raped. He replied saying, “Well, take off my handcuffs so I can defend myself.” One agent responded by saying that he would be beaten if he resisted while the other held pepper spray to his face telling him he’d be sprayed if he fought back.

Many other migrant children reported that they would be beaten after being arrested, often after being handcuffed. One Mexican minor said an officer hit him in the face after being handcuffed while another Mexican minor reported a border agent “kneed him on his head four or five times after being handcuffed,” according to a June 2013 incident report.

A 15-year-old Guatemalan boy also said officers hit him in the mouth after handcuffing him during his arrest in the desert. An incident report also shows that an officer choked him after he asked for food. After arriving at the processing station, he was then denied a blanket and access to an interpreter to translate documents and instructions during his two-day stay at the facility.

While the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General (OIG), a DHS oversight agency, said that it would investigate these complaints, less than four months later, the OIG closed its investigation without explanation. Because of this lack of oversight, Americans may never know the reality of what is happening within these facilities.

Consequently, Americans may never know what happened in the hotels either.

The ACLU of San Diego’s report indicated, “These records show a complete lack of respect not only for the fundamental human rights of thousands of children but also for the immigration laws and procedures that Congress enacted. They also reflect systemic failures throughout DHS to hold abusive officials accountable.”

COVID Exposure

As ICE continues to claim that it is adequately protecting migrants in its custody from COVID, a new report proves that those statements are untrue. Cases of COVID-19 have exploded in the last several months, ICE argues that it is doing everything it can to manage the crisis. But the report from the OIG shines a light on the continued dangers faced by detainees and staff.

As is typical for such investigations, the OIG’s report is based solely on surveys of ICE staff without actually visiting any detention facilities or interviewing any detainees. Even with the limited self-reported data, the report shows shocking insight into ICE’s failure to contain the spread of COVID-19 in their facilities. It also exposes the fears of ICE personnel regarding its inability to address outbreaks.

ICE has routinely claimed in court filings that the lack of COVID-19 cases suggests that the problem is under control, however, the OIG’s report reveals the scope of ICE’s failure to provide adequate testing. Despite the lack of testing, nearly 2,500 people in ICE detention have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. The OIG report also indicates that 70% of ICE detention centers had not tested any detained people for COVID-19 due to the lack of adequate expertise, personnel, and equipment in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

With an outbreak imminent, three detainees and five guards have already lost their lives to COVID-19 while unknown numbers of each have become seriously ill and have been hospitalized. Despite the threat of an outbreak, the OIG found that of the roughly 25,000 detainees in custody, ICE has released only 1,137 due to COVID from March 17 to May 5.

It remains unclear if the OIG will investigate is ICE’s continued transfer of detainees between facilities. The practice of moving detainees makes locating and ensuring their safety difficult to track. It also makes an outbreak throughout multiple facilities all but certain and learning who’s been hospitalized has become even more daunting — putting migrant children at greater risk.

Despite Judge Gee ordering the release of migrant children from detention centers because of COVID, the Trump administration has largely ignored her order as they have done with previous orders issued by other judges. In the order, Judge Gee wrote that detention centers “are ‘on fire’ and there is no more time for half-measures.” Her order mandated that affected children and their parents must be released or sent to live with family sponsors by July 17.

As the Trump administration ignores Judge Gee’s order, ICE is reporting that 11 children and parents have tested positive for COVID-19. At least three individuals, including a 2-year-old, have been placed in isolation after two private contractors and an ICE official tested positive for the virus.

Caring For Migrant Children

With America intently focused on COVID-19, the U.S. government is aggressively rushing the deportations of some of the most vulnerable migrant children to countries where they were raped, beaten, had a parent killed, or had their families threatened, according to court filings. Deporting children to dangerous situations isn’t new, but the government trying to quickly remove those at higher risk is an escalation that violates migrants’ rights to due process.

The Trump administration continues to delay the release of migrant children to relatives in the U.S., and in late-night moves, authorities are attempting to deport children with very little notice given to their attorneys. The government is focused on children who crossed the border alone after the U.S. forced them and their parents to remain in Mexico for months awaiting asylum. DHS is now taking steps to quickly deport as many children as possible, according to lawyers.

Migrant children being housed in hotels without oversight raises many questions. Currently, information regarding the qualifications of the staff caring for the children is not readily available nor is ICE willing to voluntarily divulge such information. With the knowledge that many who conduct these operations for CBP and ICE are contractors, it is unlikely we will learn anything about their abilities to properly care for migrants children and families.

While using hotels to house migrant children violates the FSA, Americans don’t know if any of the other mandated rules are being met. Aside from providing the basics, hotels are ill-equipped to accommodate the requirements outlined in the FSA. The rush to remove children and families as fast as possible makes it unclear if they’re receiving the proper care or being protected from abuse in addition to being denied their due process.

Aside from COVID being of major concern, what the children are eating and whether they are properly being cared for, medically and psychologically, is a mystery of equal importance. The Trump administration’s eagerness to appease the xenophobia that so many of his supporters got behind has led to some of the most inhumane conditions on the planet. Not only has the hatred of migrants infected CBP and ICE, but many of its agents appear to be acting on that hate.

In the midst of all of the inhumanity at our border are countless children that regularly go unaccounted for. The secrecy by which CBP, ICE, and DHS operate is abhorrent and denies America the accountability that is needed. These secret operations blow the doors open for corruption, misconduct, and human rights abuses. It’s a process that requires much oversight.

Now that the use of hotels has been exposed and the hotel chains have agreed to stop allowing the use of their properties to house migrant children, ICE has moved the children to unknown locations. It’s unclear what ICE and CBP intend to do moving forward. While wondering if anyone will ever be held accountable, Americans should again ask: “where are the children?”


Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice. He collaborates with many in Academia in discussing the issues mentioned here. If you’d like to learn more, follow him on TwitterFacebook, and Instagram. You can also support his work here.

Arturo Dominguez

Arturo Dominguez

Arturo is an anti-racist political nerd. He is an upcoming author, journalist, advocate for social justice, and a married father of three. He is a top writer on Medium and a regular contributor to several news media outlets. He writes educational and informative material about systemic racism, white supremacy, and racial injustice.
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