Texas Civil Rights Project halts extrajudicial expulsion of child asylum seekers

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If there was any reason left to believe that the Trump administration’s immigration policy was centered on the rule of law, it was swiftly put down this week. 

The Texas Civil Rights Project announced Monday that their lawsuit successfully stopped the expulsion of all unaccompanied children detained in a Hampton Inn Hotel in McAllen, Texas.

Instead of being expelled from the country without a paper trail, the children will now be transferred to the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

The detainment and expulsion of the asylum seekers at the South Texas hotel made national headlines last week after the Associated Press and the watchdog group helped expose the black site — a location unknown to the public where asylum seekers, including children, were being detained and denied due process, namely the right to plead their case in front of a judge or go through the asylum process while living with relatives in the U.S. 

Video filmed late last week showing private security contractors violently removing a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, as well as images of children at the hotel’s windows holding up signs asking for help and confirming they had no phone, revealed just how shady and disturbing Trump immigration policy had become since March.

In March, the Trump administration began forgoing national and international law that guaranteed rights to asylum seekers. Citing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and a CDC order created by the administration, Border Patrol agents began immediately turning away asylum seekers at legal ports of entry and rapidly expelling unaccompanied children apprehended by immigration authorities. 

At least 2,000 children have been expelled since March, the Associated Press reported last week. 

While the unmasking of the McAllen black site is no doubt a victory for the children who were detained there, the secret process of rounding up, detaining, and expulsing asylum-seeking families and children continues throughout the U.S.

“The government is holding somebody without any trace, without any record that they have them,” said Efrén C. Olivares, an attorney and Texas Civil Rights Project’s racial and economic justice program director, during a Monday update. “If something happens to that child, if that child is lost, kidnapped or worse, there’s never a record that the child was in the custody of the U.S. government.” 

In addition to having no due process rights, unaccompanied children and families that face this shadowy section of Trump immigration policy are given no case number, and relatives or family members are not alerted that their child is being detained or expelled. It’s part of the reason these removals are considered expulsions, not deportations, which are part of a legal process — albeit, a legal process that is still in vast need of improvement and which prior to the pandemic, had already routinely and systemically violated due process. 

In one example reported by the New York Times, the mother of a 10-year-old boy who crossed the border to get apprehended and seek asylum with his uncle in Houston, heard nothing about the whereabouts of her child for six days before he suddenly appeared in Honduras. Likewise, immigration officials expelled a 13-year-old girl to El Salvador without informing her mother, whose contact information they had. The child later became the plaintiff in the lawsuit filed by the Texas Civil Rights Project and the American Civil Liberties Union challenging the Trump administration.

“That doesn’t happen in democracies, this is the first step to disappear immigrant and immigrant children,” Olivares said of the latest COVID-19 border and immigration restrictions that made deportations rapid-fire, without rights, and off-the-books. 

It will be up to Congressional lawmakers to act, both in revealing and visiting black site locations to find who is being detained there and under what conditions — as well as navigate and investigate the patchwork of federal agencies that serve as the country’s deportation-expulsion machine.

Photo credit: Roberto Lopez, TCRP

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