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Since the pandemic began, the Trump administration has set up a shadow immigration system on the U.S.-Mexico border. Private contractors detain children in hotels before they're sent to their home countries. This allows immigration officials to bypass the normal process that would give the children a chance to ask for asylum in the United States. NPR's Joel Rose has the story of two people caught up in the system.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It was late at night when Ricardo (ph) and Jorge (ph) arrived in a hotel parking lot escorted by armed men in civilian clothes.
JORGE: (Through interpreter) We went in through the side door. No one was there. We didn't have to sign in or anything. We couldn't see the name of the hotel.
ROSE: Jorge is 16, and Ricardo is 13. They asked us not to use their last names because they're still in immigration proceedings. They're cousins who fled Honduras together after gang members threatened their family. They crossed the border illegally into Texas last month and turned themselves in to the Border Patrol. After spending the night in detention, the boys say they were loaded into a van by the men who were not in uniforms. Then they drove three hours to the hotel. Jorge says they were not allowed to leave their rooms for six days.
JORGE: (Through interpreter) They treated us badly at the hotel. They threatened us.
ROSE: Normally when migrant children traveling alone are apprehended, there are special protections that kick in to make sure they aren't sent back to dangerous situations. They're supposed to be detained in child-appropriate shelters before being placed with a sponsor in the U.S. while their asylum cases are heard. But during the coronavirus pandemic, that's not happening. Up and down the border, court documents show many unaccompanied children have been held secretly in hotels for days, sometimes weeks until they can be put on planes back to the countries they came from. Immigration lawyers have figured out which hotels, leading to scenes like this one.
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UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: If you're detained, give me your name.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get out if you're smart.
ROSE: The Texas Civil Rights Project posted this video on social media last month. It shows a lawyer confronting several unidentified men in the hallway of a hotel in McAllen, Texas, where the group believes migrant children were being detained.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get out.
UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Who are you? Who are you?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Don't worry about who we are.
UNIDENTIFIED LAWYER: Are you police?
ROSE: The men shoved the lawyer back into the elevator.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Get out. Get out now.
ROSE: Private contractors working for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are detaining these young migrants in hotels in McAllen as well as El Paso, Phoenix and San Antonio according to court papers. The company MVM, Inc., says its contract with ICE prevents it from talking to the media. ICE says those contractors are trained to keep the minors safe and secure. Jorge and Ricardo say they were allowed to call their relatives. They were relieved when they reached Ricardo's father who lives in Texas. But they say they weren't allowed to tell him where they were.
RICARDO JR: (Through interpreter) We were forced to say that we were OK. And I wanted to tell them that we weren't getting enough food, that we weren't allowed to go out or even to use the restroom.
ROSE: The boys figured this was just the normal immigration process in the U.S. But Ricardo's father knew something was off. He's savvy about the system because he's seeking asylum himself.
RICARDO SR: (Through interpreter) I think I suffered more than the kids because they knew absolutely nothing of what was happening.
ROSE: Ricardo Sr. says days would pass when he didn't hear from the boys or from immigration authorities. He drove six hours across Texas, stopping at every detention center and Border Patrol station to ask about the boys, all the while calling everyone he could think of for help.
RICARDO SR: (Through interpreter) I called a lawyer. I called the Honduran government. I called the Honduras Consulate, and someone at that office told me the kids were on an express deportation list.
MARK MORGAN: What we're trying the best we can do is remove all individuals, regardless of whether they're minors or they're adults.
ROSE: That's Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection. He says the Trump administration is trying to protect public health during the coronavirus pandemic by keeping migrants without papers out.
MORGAN: We're trying to remove them as fast as we can to not put them into our system, to not have them remain in the United States for a long period of time, therefore increasing the exposure risk to the American people.
ROSE: Immigration officials say they've carried out more than 100,000 expulsions during the pandemic, removing at least 2,000 unaccompanied children through June.
LISA FRYDMAN: So it's really clear to us that this is a pretext for blocking access for children and for asylum-seekers.
ROSE: Lisa Frydman is a vice president at Kids in Need of Defense, or KIND, a nonprofit that's trying to get children released from this shadow immigration system.
FRYDMAN: It completely takes them 100% out of all of the special protections that have been put in place in recognition of the vulnerability of unaccompanied children.
ROSE: In the end, Ricardo Sr.'s frantic search for his son and cousin paid off. He got in touch with KIND. The group contacted immigration authorities who handed the boys over to a shelter. A few weeks later, they were released to live with Ricardo's father.
RICARDO JR: (Through interpreter) I have the best dad because he risked it all to be reunited, to see me, to support me.
ROSE: But Ricardo's family is the exception. For most kids who pass through these hotel rooms, that's all they're going to see during their brief stay in the U.S.
Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.