Trump administration agrees not to expel migrant children detained in Texas hotel

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A Hampton Inn is shown Tuesday, 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. Documents obtained by The Associated Press show a private contractor hired by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is taking children to three Hampton Inns in Arizona and Texas under restrictive border policies implemented during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Matt York)

HOUSTON – The Trump administration has agreed not to expel a group of immigrant children it detained in a Texas hotel under an emergency declaration citing the coronavirus and will instead allow them to seek to remain in the U.S., the administration said Monday.

The move comes days after The Associated Press first reported on the U.S. government's secretive practice of detaining unaccompanied children in hotels before rapidly deporting them during the virus pandemic. Government data obtained by AP showed the U.S. had detained children nearly 200 times over two months in three Hampton Inn & Suites hotels in Arizona and two Texas border cities.

But the Trump administration has not said it will stop using hotels to detain children. The legal groups that sued Friday night said they still plan to fight the larger practice in court.

Their agreement only covers 17 people known to have been detained as of Thursday at the Hampton Inn in McAllen. After the hotel's owner said Friday it would end reservations of rooms used for child detention, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement removed the children from the hotel but refused to say where it had taken them.

Now, immigration authorities will transfer the children to shelters operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, where they will have access to lawyers and should eventually be placed with family sponsors as they pursue asylum cases or other immigration relief to try to remain in the country. The legal groups withdrew their request Sunday for a temporary restraining order.

“The children in this hotel averted disaster only because we happened to hear about them before they were deported, yet hundreds if not thousands of other children are being sent back to harm in secret," said Lee Gelernt, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. "The government must stop expelling children in secret without giving them asylum hearings.”

Federal anti-trafficking laws and a two-decade-old court settlement that governs the treatment of migrant children normally require that most children be sent to shelters operated by HHS. The shelters are licensed by the states where they're located and generally have bedrooms, recreation areas, and schooling.

Instead, more than 2,000 children have been expelled since March, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a declaration allowing immigration agencies to effectively shut down the asylum process out of concern about the spread of COVID-19.