Updated: Nov 26, 2020
When most of us think of hotels, vacations and special events come to mind. But for unaccompanied migrant children arriving in the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. hotels have become a place of captivity and cruelty.
The Trump administration is now detaining unaccompanied migrant children in secret hotel locations before expelling them from the United States with no chance to ask for asylum. Ordinarily, such children are supposed to be held in child-appropriate shelters and then placed with a U.S. sponsor while their asylum cases are heard, so that they are not forced back into dangerous environments. But, citing the risk of the spread of COVID-19, the Trump administration is now bypassing this system through rapid expulsions. Under its new policy, children can be expelled whether or not they are showing COVID-19 symptoms, and even if they are seeking asylum. So far, more than 2,000 unaccompanied children have been expelled. As Lisa Frydman, vice president at Kids In Need of Defense, puts it, this policy essentially wipes away "all of the special protections that have been put in place in recognition of the vulnerability of unaccompanied children."
These detentions are taking place while the shelter system designed to care for migrant children is operating significantly under capacity. The system would therefore be able to accommodate social distancing and quarantines, which many see as evidence that this new policy is not really about preventing the spread of COVID-19, but about bypassing immigration legal procedures and protections.
The hotels where the children are detained can be especially cruel environments because they are not a part of the formal detention system, and therefore don’t have to follow policies designed to prevent abuse in federal custody, or policies that mandate detainee access to things like phones, healthy food, and medical care. They are also harsh environments because parents and lawyers are unable to find the detained children or check on their well-being.
Ricardo, a 13-year-old boy detained after fleeing gang threats in Honduras with his cousin Jorge, described to NPR the conditions inside of the hotel: "We were forced to say [over the phone] that we were OK. I wanted to tell [my father] that we weren't getting enough food, that we were not allowed to go out or even to the bathroom." (Translation.) Jorge explained that they weren’t allowed to leave their hotel rooms for six days and were threatened during this time.
Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking aspects of this situation is that the children are left in the dark about their situations. They have very limited access to counsel, and a recent viral video showed a hotel violently removing two lawyers trying to offer pro-bono counsel to detained children. Because children often don’t understand their rights or know what typical legal procedures look like, they are easily mistreated. This vulnerability is one of the reasons there are so many protections for children built into immigration policy--protections now bulldozed over by the Trump administration.
The Trump administration’s use of the already tragic COVID-19 pandemic to send migrant children back to dangerous situations is unacceptable. The administration has a long history of mistreating migrant children, and this new policy is simply a continuation of this cruelty. The policy is opportunistic and heartless, and should be stopped to preserve the well-being and safety of migrant children.