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17 August 2020 – United States

A Person Waves to Protesters Demonstrating Against the Practice of Detaining Migrants in Hotels at a Hampton Inn in McAllen in July, (Joel Martinez, The Monitor,
A Person Waves to Protesters Demonstrating Against the Practice of Detaining Migrants in Hotels at a Hampton Inn in McAllen in July, (Joel Martinez, The Monitor, "A Private Security Company is Detaining Migrant Children at Hotels," The New York Times, 16 August 2020,

A damning new report in the New York Times (16 August) reveals the extensive use of hotels and untrained private contractors to detain unaccompanied children and families as part of speedy removal proceedings. The practice, part of the Trump administration’s pandemic-related immigration and border measures, aims to quickly “expel” migrants from the country rather than putting through formal deportation proceedings. Data obtained by the Times indicates that ICE has, over the last several months, detained at least 860 migrants at several hotels, including: Quality Suites in San Diego; Hampton Inns in Phoenix and McAllen and El Paso, Texas; a Comfort Suites Hotel in Miami; a Best Warren in Los Angeles; and an Econo Lodge in Seattle. Although the data does not specify ages of the detainees, the official who provided it said it was likely that most or all were either children traveling alone or with their parents.

Critically, because the hotels exist outside the formal detention system, they are reportedly not subject to policies designed to prevent abuse in federal custody or those ensuring that detainees are provided with access to phones, healthy food, medical and mental health care. Compounding matters, ICE is using employees from a private transportation company to operate this shadow detention system. Although the expulsions are meant to take place quickly after a migrant is apprehended, delays in securing flights prompted ICE to turn to MVM Inc., a private company known mostly as a transportation and security company, to manage the migrant children and families. MVM does not have much experience detaining migrant children and in a previous foray in 2018, the company was criticised for detaining children overnight in a vacant office park in Phoenix.

Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former deputy assistant director for custody management at ICE, who worked with MVM during his time at the agency, said: “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.” ICE officials nonetheless stated that MVM workers are trained and 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. An ICE spokesman said that no more than two children could be in a hotel room at any given time, but at least one migrant teenager stated he had been detained overnight in a hotel room in Miami with two other young migrants and three guards.

Relatedly, in late March, a federal district judge, Judge Dolly Gee, issued a temporary restraining order requiring ICE and HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to “make and record continuous efforts” to release the more than 5,000 minors held in ICE family residential shelters. On 26 June, the Judge Gee ordered the release of children held for more than 20 days at three family detention centres due to a recent spread of Covid-19 in those facilities (see 28 June United States update on this platform). As of 11 May, there were 1,500 unaccompanied children in the 195 shelter-like facilities and by 8 June, there were 1,077 children in ORR care and 124 in ICE custody.

The Times report is just the latest revealing critical problems in the US immigration detention system since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis. In a recent study, the Center for Migration Studies reports that between 21 March and 25 July, the number of detainees in ICE facilities diminished significantly, from 38,058 to 21,884. However, compared to other countries, including Canada which released about half of its immigration detainees in a single month, this decline appears slow and limited. The CMS report points to inconsistencies between ICE and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Social distancing was not feasible in any detention facility, even those which are at a third of capacity. CMS concludes that “in the current circumstances, detention imperils detainees, detention staff, contractors, court officials, health care providers, and the members of communities near facilities to which detainees ultimately return. ICE has adopted – abetted by CDC – unenforceable policies and practices that fail to reflect the severity of the crisis. It cannot safeguard those in its custody and should move with greater dispatch to release far more detainees.” The Centre for Migration Studies also recommends a shift from detention to “alternatives to detention” (ATD) programmes.