Just off the I-10 exit for Airway Boulevard, sandwiched between a Starbucks and a Hampton Inn and Suites, sits one of El Paso’s newest Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
Until a couple of months ago, it was the Best Western Plus El Paso Airport Hotel & Conference Center, which is now listed as “temporarily closed” on Google Maps. Now, people wearing “Emergency Services” T-shirts emerge periodically from the back of the hotel, tossing trash bags into an overflowing dumpster. Security guards walk about the area speaking discreetly into walkie-talkies.
Otherwise, there’s little to indicate that the building is being used for ICE detention.
“When I put the address into my GPS, I was a little, I don’t know if the word is shocked or taken aback — ‘Oh! I drive past this place all the time,’” said Mariana Sarmiento Riaño, an executive assistant for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). She visited two El Paso hotels last week that are used to detain migrant families, including the former Best Western. “You drive past and you would never know that there’s anything happening in there,” she said.
The hotels are now managed by Endeavors, a San Antonio-based company that won a no-bid contract worth $87 million to run “Emergency Family Staging Centers” for migrant families.
Endeavors began managing migrant detention at six hotels across Texas and Arizona (including the two in El Paso) in April, said Benjamin Miranda, Endeavors’ director of operational impact and outreach. An Endeavors fact sheet states the Department of Homeland Security awarded the contract to Endeavors to help cope with a greater number of migrant families arriving at the southern border of the United States in early 2021.
Miranda declined to answer specific questions about the total number of migrants currently held at the El Paso facilities, but said “on average, each staging site can accommodate up to 200 individual family members.”
Sarmiento Riaño was told last week that there were 142 migrants held at the former Best Western location, and 114 at the former Comfort Suites location. She was also informed about current COVID-19 cases at one of the sites, numbers that contradict those reported by ICE.
According to ICE’s website, there were 59 migrants with COVID-19 inside the former Best Western hotel as of Aug. 24 and no COVID-19 cases at an El Paso Comfort Suites hotel.
But Sarmiento Riaño said that officials at the site told her there were 64 positive COVID-19 cases there as of Aug. 19: 27 among minors and 37 among adults. On ICE’s website, the current listed case count at the Comfort Suites never exceeded zero from the date of Sarmiento Riaño’s visit until Aug. 24, although the cumulative case count increased by 20.
ICE spokesperson Leticia Zamarripa said “the numbers posted on the website are not posted real time.” ICE did not respond to a question of whether the hotels are specifically being used to quarantine families with COVID-19 as the number of cases increases.
Sarmiento Riaño described the appearance of the inside of the hotels as “untouched” and “very quiet.” During her visits, she didn’t see or hear a single migrant and said she was only shown a showroom of what the rooms look like.
“I asked where everyone was, and I was told that they like to stay in their rooms,” she said. She walked away from the site visits unsure of how things truly function there. “Of what I was shown, I understood, I don’t know how much I wasn’t shown though,” Sarmiento Riaño said.
Javier Hidalgo, interim director of family detention services for RAICES, also visited an Endeavors hotel last week in Pearsall, Texas. He said the cloak of mystery around these sites isn’t an accident.
“When functioning as designed, you can basically move people through those sites unseen. And so to the extent that you’re violating due process of these families,” he said, specifying that there is no space or system for facilitating confidential legal visitation at the hotels. “It’s easier to hide a lot of those violations in the Endeavors hotels, under the auspices of making it look like a more comfortable shiny alternative to the ICE prisons.”
Miranda said that hosting visits by non-governmental organizations like RAICES is part of Endeavors’ ongoing efforts to promote transparency.
“The Emergency Family Staging Centers offers a humane and holistic migrant processing for families and vulnerable individuals in a COVID-protective environment,” he said.
ICE did not respond to questions about allegations that the agency is not being transparent about the operations at Endeavors’ hotels.
Endeavors’ contentious hotel detention contract
The Endeavors contract immediately faced scrutiny upon its announcement, because of a potential conflict of interest by Andrew Lorenzen-Strait, a former ICE official and Biden administration official who brokered the contract while working in an advising capacity for the company.
U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tennessee, wrote to Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of the Department of Homeland Security and Tae Johnson, acting director of ICE, in late March with concerns about the Endeavors contract, and in April two U.S. House committees sent a joint letter that raised the same issues. In May, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General announced it would launch an investigation into the Endeavors contract.
“The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General is right to launch an investigation into the Biden Administration’s suspicious no-bid contract awarded to Endeavors Inc,” U.S. Rep. James Comer, R-Kentucky, of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said following the announcement. “There are serious concerns about the award process, the nonprofit’s ability to meet the contract needs, and the link to the Biden-Harris transition team.”
Miranda described the investigation into Endeavors as “a routine inquiry,” and said Lorenzen-Strait is a valued member of the company’s team.
“Endeavors is committed to transparency and will fully support any requests from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for information,” he said.
ICE did not respond to a request for comment about the concerns raised by Blackburn and other legislators, and the DHS OIG investigation. Instead, a local ICE official referred El Paso Matters to the national ICE office, who then referred El Paso Matters back to the local official.
Hidalgo said that other non-governmental organizations would be better equipped to work with migrant families than Endeavors.
“The NGO community was very much blindsided by these no-bid contracts that were awarded to ex-ICE people to set up this extension of family detention,” he said.
More than 100 NGOs signed a joint letter to Mayorkas and Johnson to voice concerns about the implementation of Endeavors’ contract for hotel detention and concerns with the lack of transparency around the contract itself.
“We call on the Biden-Harris administration to immediately engage in greater transparency with regards to the border management and processing programs, and to turn to the trusted local NGOs who stand ready to assist with supporting those released from the border instead of hoteling them,” the letter said.
Blackburn and the 100 NGOs requested the complete text of the contract itself, which has not yet been shared with the public. ICE did not respond to the question of whether they provided the contract to Blackburn and the NGOs following their requests.
“I can’t stress enough that none of these forms of detention should exist,” Hidalgo said. “And there are alternatives that can be in place that don’t look that different, you can have NGO-run welcome centers that have a whole bevy of social services, mental health services and are functioning to get families where they need to go.”
Differences between hotel detention and “prison-like” detention
Although there are numerous differences between detention at a hotel and a detention facility, Hidalgo said one isn’t better than the other.
“There’s no pros, there’s just different cons,” said Hidalgo, who has also visited larger family detention facilities like Karnes County Family Residential Center near San Antonio, and the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas.
“If you put it on a spectrum, you have the two ICE detention centers, which (are) like a prison setting. You’re going from a prison setting to a concentration camp setting to a comfortable hotel room that you can’t leave,” he said.
Hidalgo said hotel detention includes more comfortable sleeping conditions, whole family units are allowed to stay together (men are often separated from women and children at the large family detention centers), migrants are allowed to keep their personal belongings with them, and greater access to some supplies such as hygiene products and baby products.
But he said significant downsides of hotel detention include poor access to legal services, no access to outdoor recreation, minimal on-site medical services and limited oversight or recourse if something goes wrong.
“It’s clear that they don’t contemplate folks that are detained in these locations to be meeting with attorneys in a confidential space, which is something that is provided for in the other (ICE detention) locations,” he said.
Miranda said that Endeavors does provide migrants with access to attorneys. “Endeavors provides a list of available legal services to the families and have the availability to make phone calls from their rooms,” he said.
He also said that migrants have the ability to leave their rooms, though Sarmiento Riaño was told during her visit that they only could leave with an escort.
Hidalgo said the problem of minimal oversight at hotel facilities is compounded by poor access to legal services.
“So any malfeasance, any wrongdoing (by Endeavors employees), even just mistakes and misunderstandings, it’s a lot harder to track, police and correct,” he said. “Especially if you don’t have access to counsel, if you don’t have access to legal service providers.”
The length of time that families stay at hotels compared to larger ICE detention facilities is also a key difference.
“It does appear that families detained in hotels, at least according to the data that ICE has shared with us and the court, the average length of stay in these hotels is fairly short — approximately four days,” said Peter Schey, president of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional law and lead counsel in the landmark Flores case. The Supreme Court decision Flores v. Reno resulted in the establishment of standards for the detention of migrant children in U.S. custody, known as the Flores settlement.
ICE is required to submit information about the detention of migrants to Schey and his co-counsel, and they are charged with overseeing whether the federal government is compliant with the standards in the Flores Settlement.
“The conditions in the hotels clearly do not meet the standards included in the Flores settlement,” Schey said, specifying that the Endeavors hotels are not licensed by any county or state for the care of dependent children and lack outdoor recreation, both violations of the standards.
Miranda said that there is not a requirement for the Endeavors hotels to be licensed because they serve families, although Schey said the standards of the Flores settlement applies to both accompanied and unaccompanied minors.
“COVID-19 restrictions, safety for the families, and the location of the Emergency Family Staging Centers make it difficult to provide outdoor recreation spaces for the families,” Miranda said.
But Schey expressed reluctance to put added pressure on the administration about conditions in the Endeavors hotels while there are more egregious violations of the Flores settlement at emergency intake sites for unaccompanied minor children, like the one at Fort Bliss.
Schey and his colleagues sued the Biden administration in August over substandard conditions at the emergency intake sites for violating the Flores settlement.
“If we bring too much pressure, and we’re causing great pressure … the administration could just respond by saying ‘OK, we tried to do the right thing, but we’re going to modify our policy, and we’re only going to admit families with children 3 years and under,” Schey said.
Cover photo: The former location of the Best Western Plus El Paso Airport Hotel & Conference Center, now used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a detention facility for migrant families. (René Kladzyk/ El Paso Matters)