Ray Hunkins: Joe Biden’s ‘Welcoming Centers’ For Asylum Seekers On Our Southern Border

in Column/Ray Hunkins

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By Ray Hunkins, guest columnist

The catastrophe that is our Southern Border has not abated. Indeed, the crisis has gotten worse. 

In June there were 188,000 “encounters” by the Border Patrol with migrants coming across the Southern Border. “Encounters” with migrants in the current fiscal year have now surpassed one million. No one knows how many the government transported to the interior of the U.S., who were bearing the Corona Virus.

    In the geographic area I have an interest in, Arizona, (because I spend part of the year there), the Tucson and Yuma Sectors have seen year over year apprehension increases of 206% (138,767) and 808% (59,885), respectively.

    So far, this fiscal year Border wide, unaccompanied minors (93,512), family units (231,924), and single adults (750,806) have all increased greatly compared to last year.

   Asylum seekers, those claiming a “credible fear” of persecution in their home countries on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion, are a discreet category under U.S. immigration law, but current statistics are not publicly available for that category.

   Recently, I interviewed a young lady, the daughter of a friend, who was the operations manager of a hotel in the Phoenix area. Her hotel was contracted by the firm, Endeavors out of San Antonio, Texas, to house asylum seekers coming across the Border in Arizona. Her description of the operation was fascinating and provides an inside view of a portion of the Biden Administration’s operation on the Southern Border. 

   The young lady whose interview appears below, asked that her name not be used. For purposes of the interview, she will be referred as, “Mgr.”

INTERVIEW WITH MANAGER 

OF HOTEL HOUSING “ASYLUM SEEKERS”

RH: Would you describe the hotel where you were working in May and June of 2021?

Mgr: We were an all-suite hotel.  Mostly 1-bedroom suites with a bedroom and a separate living/kitchen area.  For the asylum seeker guest’s safety, the stove tops and garbage disposals were disconnected in each room and the windows were secured to prevent any accidents with children and falls.  Great measures were taken to make sure the safety and security of these guests were provided.  Meals were delivered and guests did not cook in the rooms.  Guests had access to cable TV in air-conditioned rooms that were relatively well appointed.  These were not luxurious accommodations but they were not meager accommodations, either.  Guests did not have access to the pool or fitness center or business center.  Our hotel was not a jail for them…but it wasn’t a vacation either.  Endeavors employees manned each floor at all times in order to address any guests that had questions or needs, at their door.  Each floor had toiletries, hygiene items, snacks and bottled water to ensure basic needs were met.

RH: What was your understanding of who the “guests” were and why the government was providing housing for them?

Mgr: My understanding is that all guests were asylum seekers that had come to the U.S. – Mexico Border in Arizona and claimed they were entitled to asylum under U.S. law. My understanding is that these guests walked across the pedestrian bridges at our Mexican border and surrendered to border patrol asking for asylum.  All of the guests at our hotel were families with children.  These were not migrants sneaking in that were then caught.  These were not drug runners or gun runners.  These were not military-aged single men.  I have no idea what is happening with folks caught on our soil, having snuck in, but if people are able to be trafficked into Mexico to walk across and claim asylum…it does beg the question of what happens to the ones that are being trafficked in so they can sneak across because of their criminal history, repeated denials of entry, etc.

RH: What was your position in the hotel and when did the asylum seekers start arriving?

Mgr: Our hotel had a contract with Endeavors that began on May 23rd.  I was the Sales Manager/Operational Manager (I reported to the General Manager and was #2 on the property) at that time and through my last day of employ (July 3rd).  Guests did not arrive on property until May 29th and that week leading up to the 29th was spent readying the hotel for the new contract.  I worked a lot of shifts and hours during those 5 weeks and got to know many of the Endeavors people and the Security and ICE agents. It was a friendly and positive environment.

RH: What agencies and departments of the government had offices at your hotel? How many government agents were working out of the hotel? 

Mgr: ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] had offices at our hotel.  ICE agents were a part of the operation and although I don’t know exact numbers…. I would guess about 4 agents a day were on our property.  “US Advisors” was a name given to another group of individuals that, I believe, acted as intermediaries between Endeavors and the federal government.  They had an office at the hotel, as well, and there were 1 or 2 individuals with that designation on the property each day.  Endeavors was the government contractor that had the contract with the hotel and that ran most aspects of the operation…most personnel on site were Endeavors employees.  Endeavor probably had about 30-40 people on site each day.  There was a security company on site, too, that monitored the building’s security and personnel coming and going and they had 4-7 employees on site a day.  Off duty Law Enforcement (“LEO”) was also hired to man the entrances to the hotel, at least during my time at the hotel…we did experience protests and incidents of trespassing from media, local residents and protestors that made the LEO presence necessary for the safety of those working at the hotel and the guests.  The LEO worked 3 to a 12-hour shift (about 5-6 a day).

RH: From what countries did the asylum seekers come? Can you guess as to the largest representation, next largest, and so on?

Mgr: I am aware of guests from Venezuela, India, Russia, Columbia, Romania, Haiti, Cuba AND Brazil.  The majority were South American and I am sure there were many countries that I was not specifically aware of.  Most spoke Spanish.  I was incredibly aware of the Brazilian guests as they spoke Portuguese and that stuck out.  I feel that the Brazilian numbers might have been the highest, at my property, during my time there.  

RH: What were the rules for those guests? How were they fed, medical needs taken care of, etc.? 

Mgr: The guests came into the hotel on a bus…usually pretty early in the day. They were happy (relived/surprised?) to be greeted with smiles and welcomes.  These were families with children and they were, for the most part, pretty quiet and respectful and they just appeared overwhelmed.  Humble is a word I would use for these guests…at least while they were at our hotel. They would come in and immediately be screened for COVID.  While waiting for their COVID screening they would be held in a secure area of the lobby.  Once they were cleared as COVID negative they would be issued photo ID for use while at our hotel (even children were given a photo ID) and those IDs would be surrendered right before they departed.  Each family went through an orientation at arrival before being taken to their rooms.  The arrival/orientation process would take an hour or two.  The families would also have meetings with ICE agents on both the day of arrival and I believe the next day, as well.  If the guests had medical emergencies or concerns…there was a medical office set up in one of our rooms to address those concerns as well (Endeavor had medical staff on the property around the clock).  The guests weren’t allowed to wander the hotel…they could leave their rooms if they had a purpose but were encouraged to stay in their rooms at other times.  Guests were escorted by Endeavors staff if they needed to meet with ICE or the medical team.  Meals were delivered to their rooms and the menu was set.  Breakfast lunch and dinner…but the Endeavors staff also had snacks and beverages they would hand out to the guests between meals.  Guests were also given a COVID test the night before their departure.  Any guests that tested positive for COVID was immediately transported, with their family, to a different facility where their medical needs could be addressed and where all the family members could be quarantined.  It is my understanding that these guests were served warrants with a court date before they departed the hotel…those warrants coming from ICE. I was unaware of any of the guests being given a vaccination shot.

RH: What was the length of stay? Do you believe the program was pre-planned or on the spur of the moment? What evidence supports your belief? 

Mgr: Guests arrived on day 1 and departed on day 3 in almost all cases.  A handful of guests may have departed on day 2 or day 4.  I believe the program was pre-planned.  Everything was incredibly organized, with regards to these guests’ paperwork, and this did not give off any “spur of the moment” feel.  I do not know if our current administration had this being organized prior to them taking office but a lot of thought and planning went into these operations.

RH:  How many rooms were in the hotel? What was the rate of occupancy during the period you were involved? 

Mgr: My hotel had 114 rooms.  Approximately 15 rooms were used as offices for the Endeavor and ICE teams.  We were bringing in about 17 families each day…and each day approximately 17 families were departing.  It did appear that they were gearing up for about twice the number of arrivals/departures each day but as of mid-month July they were still housing about that same amount.  The hotel is prepared to house up to 95 families each night but I do not know if they will ever reach that level of occupancy.

RH: What did the government pay for taking over the hotel? 

Mgr: Our contract was for the entire hotel.  The room rate was $89/room.  So roughly $10000/night of revenue for the hotel regardless of how many rooms were occupied.

RH: What happened to the guests when they left? Where were they going and what were they doing upon leaving the hotel?

Mgr: Most guests left on day 3 and were taken to the airport.  I believe the families at my hotel had sponsors to assist them during their asylum processing and those sponsors assisted with the plane tickets to get them to their destinations.  It is also my understanding that for those who had sponsors, the US government did not pay for the plane tickets.  I do not know the destinations of the guests but I think a lot of them were going to the East Coast from the answers I received when I asked that same question.

RH: Are you aware of other hotels in the area that participated in the program?

Mgr: I know that there was one hotel just starting to operate at the beginning of July in Yuma, one in Ahwautukee that started operating in March or April and our hotel in the greater Phoenix area. There was also a facility that the COVID positive guests & families were taken to but I do not know any details on that location or their set up.

RH: Do you have any observations about the efficiency of this government program?

Mgr: Our hotel was not being fully utilized.  Perhaps that has already changed and the hotel is already hosting more individuals.  But about 100 rooms a night were paid for to be used as hotel rooms and only about 35 were being used each night (plus the 15 being paid for to be used as offices by the government and government contractors).  Rollaway beds were purchased to check off boxes for how many beds there were available…but those beds would likely not be used as each of our rooms had a pullout sofa, already, in addition to one or two beds in the bedrooms.  Each of the families (or maybe even each of the adults) was given a smart phone with service to be used during their time in the US…I think this was a way of keeping track of the guests while their asylum hearings were pending…but I imagine the cost for that was significant.  Most of the Endeavors employees were from out of state.  They were being housed at a nearby hotel, as well, and received per diem.  Clothing for the guests was on site if the guests were in need and at one point there were cases and cases of infant/toddler snowsuits hanging out in boxes on the property (in Phoenix…in June).  The guests were not eating elaborately and I think the food service was pretty modest in cost.  The staffing was adequate but I did not think excessive. 

RH:  Did you hear any relevant quotes about the program from government officials you worked with?  

Mgr: The idea behind the program, as it was explained to me, was that if these asylum seekers/immigrant families were treated with hospitality and a more welcoming experience coming in… they would be more likely to show up at their hearings and check in with the people that they were supposed to check in with while waiting for those asylum hearings (i.e.; they would willingly participate in the process).  The ICE agents, that I spoke with, all thought that these people would drop off the radar before their hearings (which would be 6-18 months down the line).  A lot of the ICE agents were former border patrol that had a former career full of apprehensions and interactions at the border.  The federal agents that I spoke with (and I’m a talker that likes to find things out and I did not have a single question go unanswered during my 6 weeks working during this program) just did not believe that anything we were doing would lead to any higher participation rate among these migrants as far as showing up for their hearings.  Most of the government agents looked at it as a waste of money and a way to set precedent for asylum seekers to be well taken care of before disappearing into our country.  Most believed that many asylum claims would prove unfounded.  None of these agents believed any of these immigrants would ever be returned to their country of origin…even if their asylum claim was proven unfounded.  These guests were here in America, they believed, and they would be staying in America, no matter what.

RH: Do you have a sense of what costs these asylum seekers incurred for their journey across the Border? 

Mgr:  I have no idea.  But I imagine it was a lot…if not everything they had.  Many of the guests came in with backpacks and looked destitute.  Some came in looking more affluent.  I imagine the trafficking of individuals to our southern border was making SOMEONE or SOME ENTITY a lot of money.  I was not under the impression that any of these individuals hailed from Mexico….or at least the vast majority of them were not from Mexico.  Romania to Mexico is not a short jump…ditto for India to Mexico….Brazil to Mexico, etc.  In a pandemic world where international travel is limited…these individuals had the connections/money to make this trip.  I doubt it was cheap.

RH: Do you have any final thoughts about your experience that you would like to share?

Mgr: I enjoyed my time working with this group.  I thought the Endeavors and ICE team members were great.  It was a professional operation and we were all there to do a job.  Our guests were individuals, families.  They were people like me or you.  They had been encouraged, by our current administration, to do what they did.  They were rewarded with an easy path in to claim asylum.  These individuals were taking legitimate advantage of a change in policy in an attempt to better their situations…. either to the betterment or detriment of themselves and/or the US.  Those of us working at the hotel during this time may not have agreed with the policy…but we treated the individuals with respect and kindness.  Honestly, the entire experience was fascinating and awesome.

CONCLUSION

   Asylum seekers are unique in the way they are treated under U.S. immigration law. However, it is well known that claims for asylum are often a pretext to gain entry into the United States. As the ICE agents told the Manager and she repeated in her interview, “most [ICE agents] believed that many asylum claims would prove unfounded”. It is also well known that a very small percentage of asylum seekers show up for their asylum hearings. Most simply disappear, never to be seen again by immigration officials.

   Several facts revealed by the interview were of concern but two of them deserve comment. First, it is clear that the program undertaken with respect to asylum seekers and for their benefit, is enormously expensive. For just the hotel that is the subject of the interview, the manager estimated somewhere between 44 and 59. employees, contractors, agents, intermediaries and law enforcement, directly in support of 35 families on a daily basis. And, those numbers don’t count transportation workers and off-site medical personnel for covid positive asylum seekers, just to name two. At some point the cost of the Administration’s programs at the Border will be known and it won’t be pretty.

   Second, it is also clear that there is a gap in the Covid 19 defense of the Biden Administration. That gap is the Border and the migrants crossing it, whether they be asylum seekers or others. While it appears that medical treatment for Covid positive asylum seekers was available and utilized, there is no indication that preventive measures such as vaccines have been made available. At a time when cases are spiking and officials are recommending vaccines, masks and social distancing once again, it’s as if a prophylactic vaccine is not applicable to migrants who have crossed the Southern Border.

   The elaborate plan and its execution for handling the influx of asylum seekers at the Southern Border, suggests the influx was anticipated and even expected. It is not clear that the plan was consistent with U.S. Immigration law but it isn’t clear that it wasn’t. The problem regarding pretextual asylum seeking may require a change in law. Be that as it may, asylum seekers are a very small part of the current Border crisis. Nevertheless, if the rule of law is to prevail, the law must be enforced. Ignoring the legal requirements for asylum, or any other immigration law, undermines the rule of law and breeds disrespect, even contempt, for the legal process and those who administer it.

Ray Hunkins is a retired lawyer and rancher who now spends part of the year in Arizona on the U.S. – Mexico Border.

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