Migrant Children Secretly Held in Hampton Inn Hotels Before Expulsion From US

Under a shocking new Trump administration policy, hundreds of people who came to the United States seeking asylum were secretly held in hotels for days on end before being expelled from the country, often with little or no paper trail. This includes more than 200 unaccompanied immigrant children — including babies and toddlers — who were taken to hotels near the Texas-Mexico border by a private contractor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “The Trump administration has been just basically expelling them without due process and without any paper trail,” says Zenén Jaimes Pérez, advocacy director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, which helped uncover the abuse. We also speak with Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Under a shocking new Trump administration policy, hundreds of people who came to the United States seeking asylum were secretly held in hotels for days on end before being expelled from the country, often with little or no paper trail. Between April and the end of June, more than 200 unaccompanied immigrant children — including babies and toddlers — were held in hotels, then removed.

A private contractor for ICE — that’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement — took the children to three Hampton Inn hotels in Arizona and near the Texas-Mexico border. ICE paid MVM, Inc. to transport and monitor the children. The same company previously held separated immigrant children in squalid conditions in empty office buildings.

As Hurricane Hanna threatened South Texas this weekend, many children held at the hotel were moved to different locations, though it’s not clear where. And then, last night, on Monday night, the ACLU and the Texas Civil Rights Project and their co-counsel successfully sued to stop the expulsion of 17 people detained in the Hampton Inn hotel. Officials agreed instead to transfer them to the custody of ORR — that’s the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they were supposed to be held.

All of this comes after members of the Texas Civil Rights Project went to the Hampton Inn hotel in McAllen last week and attempted to offer legal help to people detained there. In this video, you can see and hear attorney Andrew Udelsman as he is getting off an elevator on the fourth floor, confronted by men who refuse to identify themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Can we see your badges, sir?

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Sorry?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Sir, you can’t come here. You can’t be here.

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Can I ask who you are?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Can I ask who you are, sir?

ANDREW UDELSMAN: [shouting in Spanish]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Get out!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Outside.

ANDREW UDELSMAN: [shouting in Spanish]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Get him out! Get him out!

ANDREW UDELSMAN: [shouting in Spanish]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Get him out!

ANDREW UDELSMAN: [shouting in Spanish]

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Hey, if you’re smart, you’re going to get out.

ANDREW UDELSMAN: If you’re detained, give me your name!

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Get out, if you’re smart! Get out!

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Who are you? Who are you?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Don’t worry about who we are!

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Who are you? Are you police?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Don’t worry about who we are.

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Are you police?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 4: You need to get out.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Get out! Get out! Get out! Now!

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Are you police?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Don’t worry about who we are!

ANDREW UDELSMAN: Are you police?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: Get out!

AMY GOODMAN: An attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project yelling to people and to children, “Are you being detained? Do you want to yell to me your name?” as he’s being thrown out by security.

For more, we go to McAllen, where we’re joined by Zenén Jaimes Pérez, advocacy director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, part of the team that uncovered this new Trump administration policy.

Zenén, it’s great to have you back with us. You were right there in the hotel on the fourth floor. Can you explain how you came to learn ICE was secretly holding children in hotels like these?

ZENÉN JAIMES PÉREZ: Hi. Yes. Good morning. Glad to be here.

So, part of what we’re seeing here with the video — right? — with Andy bravely stepping forward and basically taking abuse by these unnamed guards when we were there, is that for many weeks now, especially since the CDC order that effectively the Trump administration used to end asylum, we’ve known that folks who have been coming in through the border to legally seek asylum, including unaccompanied children, that instead of going through the process that is spelled out by law, the Trump administration has been just basically expelling them — right? — without due process and without any paper trail — in effect, basically violating their due process. So, for the last couple of weeks, we’ve known that the number of children who have been under the custody of the federal government in the Office of Refugee Resettlement has decreased over the course of the pandemic.

And so, in that time, in June, we filed a lawsuit on behalf of one of the children that was expelled. And through her experience and working with her, we came to find out that she was held in a hotel. And that sort of set off for us a period of investigation to try to find: Well, what did she mean, right? What do you mean that you’re in a hotel? If you’re an unaccompanied child, that was never supposed to have happened to you in the first place.

And so, after a couple of weeks of investigation and working with the Associated Press, which broke the story last Tuesday, we were actually able to uncover that the Hampton Inn hotel in McAllen, Texas, was being used to house and detain individuals, including unaccompanied children, but also other asylum seekers, including other family units, before they were expelled from the country.

And it’s important to sort of note the distinction between expulsion versus deportation, because under deportation, which is a legal process, there is a paper trail, right? There’s a way for us to be able to track what is going on and try to do some legal intervention. But under expulsion, under Title 42 of the CDC order, what’s happening is that the administration is basically just apprehending people, holding them at black sites, either like this Hampton Inn hotel or other hotels across the country, or, quite frankly, maybe moving now to other government prisons, before they’re just summarily expelled, disappeared basically from the country, and it becomes almost impossible for groups like us, other immigration attorneys or other human rights advocates to try to even find individuals to try to start some type of legal process on their behalf.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Zenén Jaimes Pérez, I wanted to ask you, this — we often hear in the United States talk of the Black Belt South, those portions of the United States that were — still overwhelmingly African American. Really, the area of McAllen, South Texas, the Rio Grande Valley is the Brown Belt of the United States, where counties and cities are 80%, 90% Latino, with Latino elected officials. What is your understanding of what the local officials know, if anything, about what’s going on here with the federal agencies?

ZENÉN JAIMES PÉREZ: Yeah. So, once sort of everything became viral on Thursday, we quickly came to find out that the city of McAllen, from what they’ve told us, that they really didn’t have any knowledge of what was going on at the Hampton Inn hotel.

But this is part of the wider picture — right? — the things that we’re seeing in Portland, which DHS agents, including Border Patrol agents — where, you know, Portland is not on the border — they are disappearing folks, protesters, right? The thing that’s happening, though, at the border in the Rio Grande Valley, in El Paso and in Arizona is that the heavy militarization because of DHS over the last 20 years have already — have been experienced by the community here for decades — right? — hypermilitarization, unaccountable federal agents that are basically shooting individuals with impunity. There’s been numerous deaths of children and other individuals in ICE and also Border Patrol detention facilities here. Border wall construction is ongoing and even ramping up in the middle of the pandemic. And there have been this type of hypermilitarization on Brown communities here at the border for decades and decades and decades.

And so, what we saw on Thursday was also an outcrop of that. And unfortunately, this is definitely something that is being imposed under the national security apparatus coming to Washington, D.C., with no regard to the communities that have actually been here and live here and have been undergoing this militarization for decades.

AMY GOODMAN: Zenén, I wanted to get your response to the Hilton company, which owns Hampton Inn brand. They said, “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.” Your response? And what are you demanding of them?

ZENÉN JAIMES PÉREZ: Yeah, you know, definitely. On Friday, we had that statement from the Hilton company, but we also saw that in the statement they say that they were no longer detaining individuals at that Hampton Inn hotel. But when we went on Saturday, we definitely found still families there that were waving at us from the window, right? And so, we definitely knew that they had to — and on Monday, we saw the Hilton company actually update their statement to clarify what was actually going on. And so, we know that this sort of back-and-forth is happening and that there is definitely accountability that the Hilton company needs to have, because it definitely happened under their noses, right? It happened not just in the valley, but also in — as you mentioned, in Arizona and in other locations. So, definitely, there’s some more oversight and accountability that needs to happen there.

But the wider point, I think, here is that these black sites that are being operated by the DHS, whether they’re at a Hilton, Ritz-Carlton or even one of the government prisons that we already have a network of along the border — the wider picture here is that there is no oversight, no accountability to what’s going on. So, we could have families and other detained folks here in our community still, and there would almost be no way for us to find out, unless we do a big investigation like we just did to uncover one site. So, if this is what it takes to uncover one location and try to stop the illegal expulsion of just 17 individuals — which, you know, we know that there were more than 17 in there, so we’re still actively looking for those other individuals who were moved this weekend under the cover of a hurricane. So, if this is all happening with no oversight, we can only just kind of imagine what other black sites and what other secrecy is being operated by DHS along the border.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re calling for a congressional investigation, so you don’t have to imagine?

ZENÉN JAIMES PÉREZ: Exactly, yes. So, this is the type of oversight that we need, right? We need people to start asking questions, like how many people have been expelled, how many unaccompanied minors, where are these locations, and why isn’t there access to legal counsel at these areas. And so, before we start — we can’t intervene on behalf of individuals unless we know the full picture. And unfortunately, right now the administration has been using the COVID pandemic to basically create a cloud of secrecy over their asylum process and asylum — illegal asylum policies here at the border. And we really need to shine a light on that.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you mentioned the hurricane, and we want to stay at the Texas-Mexico border to look at what’s happened to asylum seekers in the Mexican city of Matamoros, just across from Brownsville, Texas, one of the largest refugee camps, that houses more than a thousand asylum seekers, including newborns and elderly people, told to evacuate overnight when the river next to it, the Rio Grande, started to rise and flood their tents. Rain from Hurricane Hanna has continued to devastate the area. These are people who have been waiting for months for court dates under a U.S. immigration policy informally known as “Remain in Mexico.”

For more, we’re joined by Sister Norma Pimentel. She is executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you describe what happened last night and what people need to know?

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: Thank you. Yes. We have been very concerned for the almost 2,000 individual refugees that are waiting there in Matamoros —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sister Norma —

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: — and seeing that the river is growing. Yes?

AMY GOODMAN: Keep going. Yes, Sister.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: We just want to make sure that they’re safe. And together with the authorities of Matamoros, the immigration in Mexico, we are trying to work with the families to move them to a safer space. And because they’re afraid, they’re afraid that — of what is happening to them, and not wanting to leave the area. We continue to just monitor the river, and we’re prepared to move them to a safer space this morning or throughout this day.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Sister Norma, in terms of how the United States — we’re hearing all the attention placed on the storm in the U.S., very little on the impact on Mexico, right across the border.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: Well, we see the families in Mexico. I mean, all the border is being affected on both sides of the U.S. and the Mexican border, and there’s a lot of extensive flooding in both sides. And so, we’ve already seen how the river, they’re letting the — water is being released from along the river areas to release all the flooding that is happening in Reynosa and other cities. Already the river has gone over and covered a lot of areas, and so we were afraid that this is happening also in Matamoros. And so, we’re trying to do our best to assist the families and help the Mexican authorities that are concerned for the safety of the families.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Josué Cornejo, Honduran asylum seeker, who’s been forcibly living at the Matamoros encampment with his family for a year due to Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy.

JOSUÉ CORNEJO: [translated] There were some very difficult days and nights, two long, sleepless nights. The rain has passed, but it’s now headed to the mountains. What are the consequences of that? The Rio Grande flows from up there. The most dangerous part could come if the river floods. The camp is right next to the river. There is no protection for us if the river overflows.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Josué describing what’s happening there. Can you compare the U.S. response to Mexico’s, Sister Norma?

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: Well, I wish that the U.S. can see the danger that these families are exposed to, and that they are allowed to enter the United States and be safe in an area here in the U.S., so we can take care of them as they go through their asylum process, because it’s not safe for them to be there in that area.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, you wrote a piece in The Washington Post, Sister Norma, that “Covid-19 has come to our migrant camp. It makes ending the MPP policy even more urgent.” In these last 30 seconds, explain how hard COVID has hit there.

SISTER NORMA PIMENTEL: Well, we are doing our best to control the spread of COVID, and measures are being taken to make sure it doesn’t. We’re thankful that we can do that. But they are truly at the need to move them out of there and allow them to enter the country, the United States. It’s the right way to do it, and I wish that that happened.

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll link to your piece. MPP is that “Remain in Mexico” program. Sister Norma Pimentel, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley. And thank you to Zenén Jaimes Pérez, the advocacy director for the Texas Civil Rights Project. We will continue to follow what’s happened to these disappeared children and adults.

That does it for our broadcast. If you want to sign up for our Democracy Now! daily newsletter, you can go to democracynow.org or text the word “democracynow” to the number 66866. That’s “democracynow,” one word.

Democracy Now!, produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Charina Nadura, Sam Alcoff, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Stay safe. Save lives Wear a mask.