Special Report: Guatemalan teenager held in network of hotels, hidden from her own attorney
A teenage Guatemalan girl staying at a McAllen hotel was moved at midnight May 15 to another city hundreds of miles away.
Attorneys chased after her across state lines, attempting to stop a deportation set in motion when ICE took custody of her from an El Paso shelter on May 6.
An Associated Press investigation revealed it was happening on a larger scale. Documents obtained by the AP show that in a period of more than two months, the government used three hotels 200 times. The hotels were located in Phoenix, El Paso and McAllen. The site in McAllen, a Hampton Inn & Suites, was used 123 times. One child was kept there for up to 19 days.
"This is my first experience having a client to be picked up by ICE then moved to a different city, and especially to be moved to a few different cities," said A'Kiesha Danielle Soliman, a staff attorney at the Diocesan Migrant & Refugee Services in El Paso.
Soliman works with a nonprofit legal organization representing immigrants, including unaccompanied minors in the El Paso area. That's where she encountered a teenage girl from Guatemala.
In July 2019, the teenager and her mother arrived at the Mexican border town of Cuidad Juarez in Chihuahua. As a family, they requested asylum from the U.S., were placed in the Migrant Protection Protocols program and sent back to Mexico to await their U.S. court hearings.
According to court documents, the attorneys for the teenager claim the officers did not explain they needed to be present in court. While in Mexico, the mother fell ill in Aug. 2019. Both she and her daughter returned to Guatemala and missed their court hearing. By default, an immigration judge issued removal orders in October 2019.
Facing escalating death threats from Guatemalan gang members, who once held her at gunpoint, the teenage girl ventured back to the United States for a second time. In March, she crossed into the U.S. alone.
The teenager encountered immigration officials who processed her as an unaccompanied minor. As such, the government placed her with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Children in ORR custody are kept in shelters, but family members or sponsors in the U.S. can claim their relatives and have them released.
Soliman met the teenager while she was being held in an ORR shelter in El Paso.
A motion to reopen the teenager's case and rescind the removal order was filed. While a judge was deciding her case, the teen could not be deported.
For four weeks, the stay of deportation held. During that time, Soliman contended the shelter should release her client.
"We tried to encourage the shelter to reunify her under the Flores Settlement agreement, because her deportation was not imminent or immediate. The shelter was not willing to reunify her with her siblings here in the U.S," Soliman said.
On May 6, ICE picked up the girl and drove her to McAllen, where she stayed at the Hampton Inn & Suites.
An incomplete asylum application was left behind in El Paso. It only needed the girl's signature, according to Soliman.
"All I knew is that she was at a hotel in McAllen," Soliman said. "The deportation officer was not willing to tell us what hotel she was at."
Although an attorney from the Rio Grande Valley was willing to meet the girl to collect the missing signature, they could not locate her.
On May 15, the teenage girl along with a few other minors boarded a charter bus headed to Louisiana.
White vans were seen parked outside that night at the hotel where the Associated Press found many immigrants were staying.
The vehicles belonged to MVM Inc. According to ICE, MVM Inc. is a company contracted by the agency for transporting unaccompanied migrant children from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to ORR custody.
A charter bus took the immigrant children to an airport in Alexandria, Louisiana. Some boarded the plane and were sent back to their countries of origin.
Soliman's client had a longer trip. The bus took her back to San Antonio, where she was eventually deported.
"Over a series of twelve days, my client was basically moved from a hotel in El Paso, to a hotel in McAllen then a hotel in Alexandria, Louisiana, and then ultimately a hotel in San Antonio where she was deported," Soliman said.
Legal advocates with the Texas Civil Rights Project visited the McAllen hotel Thursday. One of the attorneys went inside to talk to those in federal custody.
Three men inside the hotel, later identified by ICE as MVM employees, approached him. As the attorney tried to push past them to gain access to the floor housing the immigrant families, the three men shoved the attorney into the elevator and told him to "get out."
An ICE spokesman released a statement about that incident:
"On July 23, an ICE contractor, MVM, Inc. was on location in a hotel in McAllen, TX providing temporary housing for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). To ensure the safety of those in custody, contract officers, on a dedicated floor, positioned themselves at both the elevator and exit doors. During this time, two unidentified individuals attempted to forcefully gain access to that area of the building - but the officers were able to move them back to the elevators away from the occupied rooms. Local law enforcement responded and secured the scene. The incident is currently under review. ICE is not currently holding any individuals at that location. ICE is committed to the health and safety of everyone in our custody."
Some of the minors detained that day at the hotel were going to be expelled from the country without any procedural protections. That was allowed under the order issued by the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It temporarily keeps the U.S. from moving certain immigrants into the U.S. from Canada or Mexico to avoid spreading COVID-19.
A lawsuit was filed by the civil rights organization against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security the next day. The lawsuit sought declaratory and injunctive relief from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia.
On Monday, the government told the court it would be allow the minors at the hotel as of July 23 who remain in the U.S. to be processed under the immigration procedures prior to the CDC order.
The Guatemalan teenager entered the United States prior to the implementation of the border policies restricting travel. The lawsuit will not apply to children like her.
Chris Daly, the president of Daly Gray Public Relations, which is handling public relations for Hampton Inn & Suites, said the immigrant children and families were scheduled to leave the hotel no later than Monday.
Federal lawmakers have since sent a letter to Chad Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, requesting information about what happened and expressing "deep alarm."