Houston — An appeals court refused Sunday to allow the Trump administration to resume detaining immigrant children in hotel rooms before expelling them under rules adopted during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Three judges on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals left in place a lower court’s order that requires the U.S. to stop using hotels in most situations to detain children unaccompanied by a parent. The judges denied the U.S. government’s request for a stay of that order.

Border agents since March have placed at least 577 unaccompanied children in hotel rooms before expelling them from the country without a chance to request asylum or other immigration protections. The Trump administration argues it has to expel most people crossing the border due to public health considerations. Advocates for immigrants accuse the administration of using the coronavirus as a pretext to restrict immigration.

“It is a sad fact that court involvement was needed once again to ensure the basic safety of children,” said Leecia Welch, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law.

The appeals court judges were sharply critical of the administration during oral arguments, questioning why children in the hotels weren’t guaranteed access to lawyers and why the government wasn’t using existing youth shelters that have thousands of empty beds. Those shelters offer legal services as required under a longstanding court settlement known as the Flores agreement.

A spokeswoman for the Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday.

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