A Hampton Inn is shown July 21, 2020, in Phoenix. The Trump administration is detaining immigrant children as young as 1 in hotels before deporting them to their home countries. (Photo: Matt York/Associated Press)

A federal judge has given the Trump administration until Sept. 28 to stop the practice of holding immigrant children in hotels for prolonged periods under a secretive policy that rapidly expels undocumented immigrants who arrive at the border amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee denied on Monday the Trump administration’s request to put on hold her original Sept. 4 order to end the practice while an appeal is pending.

The Trump administration has been holding hundreds, and possibly thousands, of immigrant children in hotels in Phoenix and several other cities under emergency pandemic measures implemented in March to quickly expel undocumented immigrants, including children. In the past, immigrant children were transferred to state-licensed supervised shelters and provided a chance to apply for asylum.

Gee ruled Sept. 4 that the government’s detention of children longer than 72 hours violated the decades-old Flores settlement that governs the treatment of immigrant children in custody. She had ordered the Trump administration to stop holding immigrant children in hotels as part of the policy by Sept. 15, with limited exceptions, but the practice has continued while the Trump administration sought stays pending an appeal.

A review of federal court records by The Arizona Republic, part of the USA TODAY Network, shows that a total of 660 immigrant children were held at 26 hotels between April 18 and July 31 as part of a Trump administration policy to expel undocumented immigrants rapidly. The hotels were located in Phoenix; in El Paso, McAllen, Pharr, Houston and San Antonio, Texas; and in Alexandria, Louisiana, court records show.

Of the 660, 577 of the children were minors not accompanied by parents.

The data was included in court records filed by the National Center for Youth Law and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, plaintiffs in the Flores settlement case, based on data provided by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. An analysis by the National Center for Youth Law of the ICE data provided by ICE found several inconsistencies, including discrepancies in the dates some children were held in hotels and more alarmingly discrepancies in which cities they were held, court records show.

“The fact that the government cannot seem to consistently keep track of how many children it has held in its custody is disturbing, to put it mildly. It is emblematic of the problem with such an opaque, unregulated, ad hoc program,” Gee wrote in the Sept. 21 order.

The children ranged in age from 3 months to 17 years and were held in hotels as long as 29 days by a private contractor, MVM Inc., working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, court records show.

Many of the immigrant children held in hotels during that period have already been expelled, the records show.

The court records show that more hotels in Phoenix were used to hold immigrant children than was previously known. They also show how many children were held in each hotel.

Of the 660 immigrant children held in hotels, 124 were held at three hotels in Phoenix. 

Of the 124 immigrant children held at hotels in Phoenix, the vast majority, 121, were held at the Hampton Inn Phoenix-Airport North hotel on 44th Street near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. That is the second highest number of children held at any one hotel during that period, according to the court records.

Two immigrant children were held at the Crown Plaza Phoenix Airport hotel on Washington Street during that period, the records show, and one child was held at an unnamed hotel in Phoenix listed in court records only as “hotel.”

Previously, it was only known that immigrant children were held at the Hampton Inn Phoenix-Airport North hotel. The number of children held there also previously was not known.

In this July 23, 2020, file photo, protesters wave signs in front of the Hampton Inn hotel in McAllen, Texas. (Photo: Joel Martinez/Acossiated Press)

The 121 immigrant children held at the Hampton Inn Phoenix-Airport North was the second highest total behind the Hampton Inn and Suites in McAllen, where a total of 339 immigrant children were held during that period, court records show.

Owners of the Hampton Inn Phoenix-Airport North and the Crown Plaza Phoenix Airport hotels did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego, a critic of holding immigrant children in hotels, said the 124 immigrant children held in Phoenix shows the scope of the program is larger than the federal government has acknowledged.

“I’ve spoken to the federal government and they claimed this was a very small program. Your reporting indicates that it’s much larger than I was led to believe,” Gallego said.

Gallego wrote to Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf asking for information about the program after the Associated Press first reported that hotels in Phoenix, El Paso and McAllen Texas had been used to hold immigrant children.

Wolf said during a Senate hearing in August that the practice of holding immigrant children in hotels was ongoing and said DHS officials would provide information about the practice to Phoenix officials. That has not happened, Gallego said.

“This is a very significant program and we are not getting the information we need. Given the magnitude of the program it could look like human trafficking,” Gallego said. “The hotels are not set up to provide the necessary security for children including accountability of who enters their rooms when they are alone.

“Children should be kept in facilities that were designed for this purpose,” Gallego said. She noted that there are state-licensed facilities that have been used to house immigrant children in the past available in Phoenix.

The facilities “had many beds open during this time period. I’m very concerned about this program. It needs to end,” Gallego said.

Owners of the Hampton Inn Phoenix-Airport North and the Hampton Inn and Suites in McAllen where the bulk of the immigrant children were held early have said they have ended contracts and had stopped allowing immigrant children to be held at the two hotels.

The total number of immigrant children who have been held in hotels since the Trump administration implemented the emergency COVID-19 policy is not known.

“The government’s detention of children in unlicensed and unmonitored hotels presents a significant risk of harm to these children, as children are supervised by private contractors who do not have licensure or appropriate training in children’s development, trauma, or legal rights,” said Melissa Adamson, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law.

“The government’s detention of children in unlicensed and unmonitored hotels is particularly egregious given that there are over 10,000 available licensed beds in ORR shelters,” she said.

At least 147,601 immigrants who arrived at the southern border without documents have been expelled under the policy, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection data. Of those, least 8,800 immigrant children have been expelled, court records show.

In denying the Trump administration’s request for a stay, Gee, the judge, rejected the Trump administration’s argument that holding immigrant children in hotels to expel them quickly protected the public and others from the spread of COVID-19 at state-licensed facilities operated under contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Holding immigrant children in hotels, on the contrary, poses just as much a risk, while also exposing children to unsupervised and potentially traumatic conditions, Gee wrote. 

“Defendants have failed to demonstrate how hotels, which are otherwise open to the public and have unlicensed staff coming in and out, located in areas with high incidence of COVID-19, are any better for protecting public health than licensed facilities would be.” Gee wrote, citing the Sept. 4 order. “Not only are the minors and their families potentially endangered by hoteling, but so are (ICE contract) personnel, hotel staff, and other guests that stay at the hotels.”

Reach the reporter at daniel.gonzale[email protected] or at 602-444-8312. Follow him on Twitter @azdangonzalez.

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