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US hotels caught in fight over housing detained migrants

FILE - In this July 8, 2019, file photo, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers transfer a man in handcuffs and ankle cuffs onto a van during an operation in Escondido, Calif. Advocacy groups and unions are pressuring Marriott, MGM and others not to house migrants who have been arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. But the U.S. government says it sometimes needs bed space, and if hotels don’t help it might have to split up families. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)

DETROIT (AP) — There’s a new target in the clash over immigration: hotels.

Advocacy groups and unions are pressuring Marriott, MGM and others not to house migrants who have been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

For decades, the U.S. government has occasionally detained migrants in hotels, and Acting ICE Director Matthew Albence says it might have to split up families if hotels don’t help.

It’s the latest example of a private industry caught in the political fray of an overtaxed immigration system.

American and United Airlines said last year they didn’t want to fly migrant children separated from their parents. Greyhound told authorities to stop dropping off immigrants inside its bus stations. More recently, immigration groups have criticized Enterprise for renting vans to federal agents and PNC Bank for funding private detention centers.

Hotels don’t like to wade into politics. They’re used to accepting business without questions and tuning their lobby televisions to nonpolitical channels. They’re also used to working with the government, whether to host displaced flood victims, defense contractors or conferences.

But when the Trump administration announced immigration arrests targeting families the weekend of July 13 and said it might use hotels, the big companies responded. Marriott, Hilton, Choice Hotels, Best Western, Wyndham, Hyatt, IHG and MGM Resorts all released statements saying they don’t want their hotels used to detain migrants.

Hotels felt pressure from their unions — which represent thousands of immigrants — as well as from customers angered by recent scenes of overcrowding and other squalid conditions at detention facilities.

“Hotels are meant to welcome people from all over the world, not jail them,” said D. Taylor, president of the hotel workers union Unite Here.

The companies also needed to reassure customers that their properties are safe and not overrun by armed guards watching migrants, said Daniel Mount, an associate professor of hospitality management at Pennsylvania State University. So far, there’s been little evidence of widespread arrests.

But the hotels’ stance frustrates Albence. He said ICE uses hotels “strategically” to keep families together before transferring them to detention centers or deporting them. As of July 16, the agency had 53,459 individuals in custody, including 311 members of families.

“If hotels or other places do not want to allow us to utilize that, they’re almost forcing us into a situation where we’re going to have to take one of the parents and put them in custody and separate them from the rest of their families,” Albence told The Associated Press in a recent interview.

The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy last year led to the separation of families at the southern border, igniting widespread outcry before it was abandoned.