Legal Groups Sue US for Secretly Placing Immigrant Children in Texas Hotel

MCALLEN, Texas (CN) — Hilton Hotels & Resorts denounced late Friday the use of a South Texas Hampton Inn as a detainment center for migrant children, the same day civil rights attorneys sued the government after going viral on social media when they tried to contact the children and were forcibly thrown out of the hotel by three men who refused to identify themselves.

Hilton said its hotel in McAllen is “independently owned and managed” and that it accepted reservations from a private contractor working for U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement to house migrants that are being transported.

“This is not activity that we support or in any way want associated with our hotels,” the company said in a statement. “Our policy has always been that hotels should not be used as detention centers or for detaining individuals. We expect all Hilton properties to reject business that would use a hotel in this way.”

Hilton said it did not facilitate the reservations or have an enterprise agreement with the contractor, later identified by ICE as private security firm MVM. Hilton said the hotel’s owner has since cancelled the business and that the detainees are no longer at the hotel.

The about-face comes one day after attorneys with the non-profit Texas Civil Rights Project tried to enter a floor where the children were held in the hotel. In a 38-second video posted on Twitter, an attorney is confronted by three men as he steps off the elevator. After the men refuse to answer his questions about their identity or if they are police, the attorney yells down the hall in Spanish and English for the detainees to provide him their phone numbers if they are being detained.

The three men forcibly shove the attorney back into the elevator, slamming him into the back wall. They angrily and repeatedly yell “don’t worry about it” and “get out now” before the video ends.

One day later, the Texas Civil Rights Project posted photographs from outside of the hotel of migrants holding up handwritten signs in their rooms stating “we need your help” and “we have no phones.”

“Families asking for help & telling us they have no phones,” the group posted on Facebook. “The Department of Homeland Security is keeping them in this black site to expel them unless we raise hell.”

The Texas Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union sued DHS in DC federal court hours later, claiming the agency is “stashing children in a hotel at the border, away from advocates and lawyers, in order to hurriedly expel them without hearings or any of the mandatory protections” that unaccompanied children get under the law.

The lawsuit claims the Trump administration is doing this under “a new shadow immigration system” called the “Title 42 Process” that a judge in the court  “has already found likely is unlawful” in a previous ruling.

“Defendants will not provide the names of the children, and to the extent they permit the child to call a parent, they do not permit the child to tell the parent their location (if these young children even know where they are),” the 25-page complaint states. “The children are in imminent danger of unlawful removal, perhaps as soon as today.”

The plaintiffs say the new expulsion process is being carried out in secret, that immigration lawyers working with unaccompanied children first noticed a “severe drop” in the number of children in shelters run by DHS’ Office of Refugee Resettlement in the early weeks of the process. 

DHS did not immediately respond to an email message requesting comment on the lawsuit Saturday. On Friday, the agency said the men in the viral video were “contract officers” meant to “ensure the safety of those in custody” on a dedicated floor.

“During this time, two unidentified individuals attempted to forcefully gain access to that area of the building – but the officers were able to move them back to the elevators away from the occupied rooms,” the agency said at the time. “The incident is currently under review. ICE is not currently holding any individuals at that location. ICE is committed to the health and safety of everyone in our custody.”

Roberto Lopez, the Texas Civil Rights Project’s community outreach coordinator, said during a livestream Saturday the lawsuit is aimed at stopping “these unlawful and imminent expulsions” so that they children can seek asylum.

Lopez disputed Hilton and DHS’ claims that the migrants are no longer at the hotel, calling their statements “completely misleading and false.”

“That’s not what we saw yesterday,” he said. “We were there at 5:00 p.m. … I walked up the sidewalk at the south side and you could see whole families still on the fifth floor.”

Lopez said there may not be any more unaccompanied minors at the hotel but there are still families being detained there.

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