The US detained hundreds of migrant children in hotels as the pandemic flared

Migrants peak out of the window of the fourth floor of a Hampton Inn in McAllen, Texas, on Thursday July 23, 2020. (CNN)Hundreds of migrant children have been held in hotels and guarded by government contractors in recent months as part of a secretive new system that advocates warn […]

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(CNN)Hundreds of migrant children have been held in hotels and guarded by government contractors in recent months as part of a secretive new system that advocates warn puts kids in danger.

Immigrant and civil rights groups accuse the US government of using the pandemic to create a shadow immigration system that skirts the law, with authorities denying vulnerable children protections they’re entitled to and rushing to kick them out of the country.

“These children are being held at what are essentially black sites, with no access to the outside world. And not only no access to the outside world, but no access to the immigration system,” says Karla Marisol Vargas, a senior attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project.

“This whole process is egregious, period,” Vargas says. “It is a violation…of every single protection that these children have.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement declined to respond to CNN’s questions about the use of hotels to detain children and families, citing pending litigation. But officials have defended the practice in court filings, arguing that they’re protecting the safety of kids in custody while following new public health guidelines.

No one has eyes on these children … there is incredible room for abuse and/or neglect.

Neha Desai, attorney

Court documents obtained by CNN reveal that detaining children in hotels has become increasingly common during the coronavirus pandemic. According to recent court filings, more than 25 hotels in three states — Arizona, Texas and Louisiana — are currently being used to detain immigrant children.

More than 570 unaccompanied minors and more than 80 children traveling with family members have been detained in hotels since officials began invoking a public health law to restrict immigration in March. Some children have been held in hotels for a few days, others for weeks.