McALLEN, Texas (CN) — The Trump administration backtracked Monday evening from plans to expel unaccompanied migrant children that were secretly detained last week at a South Texas hotel, following a lawsuit from civil rights groups after their attorney was thrown out of the hotel by unidentified federal contractors.
In a two-page notice, the Justice Department told a federal judge in Washington it will no longer return the children to their countries of origin under a temporary order by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. The Texas Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union sued to halt the expulsions and restore immigration procedures that would normally have been afforded to the children before the pandemic.
“The government hereby represents that the unnamed single minors who were at the identified hotel on July 23, 2020 and still in the United States when the TRO was filed are being processed or will be processed under the immigration procedures set out in Title 8 of the U.S. Code and not under the CDC order,” the filing states. “As the court is aware, TCRP has withdrawn its motion for a TRO.”
The Texas Civil Rights Project tweeted a 38-second video last week that quickly went viral, showing its attorney entering a floor at a Hampton Inn in McAllen where the children and families were held. Three men meet him out of the elevator and refuse to identify themselves or if they are police, resulting in the attorney yelling down the hall in Spanish and English for the migrants 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.
A day later, the nonprofit group posted photographs taken from outside of the hotel showing the migrants holding up handwritten signs from their windows stating “we need your help” and “we have no phones.” It claims the Department of Homeland Security is “keeping them in this black site to expel them unless we raise hell.”
The lawsuit claims the CDC’s temporary Title 42 order is being used as “a new shadow immigration system” to get rid of thousands of migrants in a way that a Washington federal judge “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 Texas Civil Rights Project said Monday’s backtracking “is a clear admission of wrongdoing by the Trump administration.”
The group’s legal director, Efren Olivares, said federal officials have been using the pandemic “as an excuse” under the temporary CDC order to “expel everyone detained at the border” including unaccompanied children.
“The first thing we tried to do is send people to the hotel … to confirm people were being held there secretly,” he said during a livestream. “The trick was we did not know the names of the people who were held there, we did not know how many. We ended up filing a lawsuit on our own behalf as the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of the children at the hotel … we negotiated all weekend and the government agreed to take the children out of the expulsion process and place them in an [Office of Refugee Resettlement] shelter. That is all we were asking, really.”
ORR shelters are run under the Department of Health and Human Services and are tasked with matching up unaccompanied migrant children with their adult relatives in the United States.
The Texas Civil Rights Project said in an email message Monday evening that the Department of Homeland Security moved the unaccompanied children from the hotel on Friday, while the remaining adults and families were moved out on Saturday as Hurricane Hanna blew through South Texas.
The group expressed frustration at the “mainstream media focusing on hotel conditions and even calling this ‘deportations,’” which is a different legal process.
The Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment Monday evening. It said last week that the physical confrontation in the viral video is “under review” and identified the federal contractor working on its behalf as private security firm MVM.
Hours later, Hilton Hotels & Resorts denounced the use of its hotel as a detainment center, stating the independently owned and managed Hampton Inn accepted the contractor’s reservations.
“This is not activity that we support or in any way want associated with our hotels,” the company said in a statement at the time. “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.”