AP investigative reporting exposes an ugly practice by US immigration authorities: Children held in hotels awaiting deportation, in violation of federal law.

Earmarked for deportation, the immigrant children, some mere toddlers, were parked in nondescript hotels – out of sight and, the Trump administration thought, out of mind.  

But not out of reach of an Associated Press exclusive.

With an investigation that sparked outrage and accusations of child abuse, Houston-based immigration reporter Nomaan Merchant blew open the secret of how the Trump administration held immigrant children as young as 1 year old in hotels, sometimes for weeks, despite federal anti-trafficking laws and court decisions that say kids should be cared for in tailor-made shelters with qualified caregivers. The administration has held children in hotels under an emergency declaration citing the coronavirus.

Merchant first got wind of the story from sources he’s cultivated as a member of an AP team focusing on immigration issues and abuses. He then worked to unearth data to back up the tip of kids being held in hotels.

Records from a court settlement that governs the treatment of immigrant children in U.S. detention identified for the first time where the kids were being held and for how long. A private contractor hired by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used the hotels to detain children before deporting them. Hampton Inn & Suites in three cities in Texas and Arizona housed the kids who had crossed into the U.S. without a parent, kids who normally would have been taken to more adapted facilities overseen by the Department of Health and Human Services. The hotels were used nearly 200 times, while more than 10,000 beds sat empty at the HHS facilities. The records gave Merchant written proof of what one lawyer quoted in his story called “a shadow system in which there’s no accountability.”

Court records gave Merchant proof of what one lawyer called “a shadow system in which there’s no accountability.”

He also gathered accounts from a witness who saw for himself what previously had only been a rumor. Roberto Lopez of the Texas Civil Rights Project told Merchant that at one of the hotels, in McAllen, Texas, he saw people in scrubs going into rooms holding children and spotted a small child clutching a gate, as an adult on the other side played with him. Lopez said he could hear the cries of at least one child in a hallway. 

The response to Merchant’s exclusive was immediate. U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pennsylvania, posted the story and tweeted, “This is child abuse.” The Congressional Hispanic Caucus held a call with executives from Hilton, which owns the Hampton Inn brand. The mayor of Phoenix wrote a letter to the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security criticizing the use of the hotel in her city. A court-appointed monitor for immigrant youth filed a report calling for the federal government to stop using hotels. Legal groups sued the Trump administration. Five days after the story ran, the Trump administration said it would not expel 17 people, including children, known to have been detained at the McAllen hotel. 

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Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Andy Udelsman writes a message to child detainees inside a Hampton Inn in McAllen, Texas, as protesters wave signs, July 23, 2020.

Joel Martinez / The Monitor via AP

The administration did not say that it would stop using hotels to detain kids. But the children removed from the Hampton Inn in McAllen will now go to shelters, where they will have access to lawyers and should eventually be placed with family sponsors as they pursue asylum cases or other immigration relief and a chance to try to stay in the U.S. 

The three hotels pledged to stop allowing child detention in their rooms, and Hilton said it would stress to its franchisees that its hotels should not be used as detention spaces. 

Customer usage was high. The exclusive hit front pages of newspapers in Tucson, Arizona, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and The Arizona Republic wrote multiple stories citing the exclusive. CBS matched the story for its morning show, featuring it prominently in its first hour with credit to the AP. The story was also used by MSNBC and Public Radio International.

For his investigative story that punctured layers of secrecy and changed the fortunes of out-of-sight immigrant children, Merchant wins this AP’s Best of the Week award.