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Wall Street Journal / News - Politics

Washington Attorney General Sues Motel 6 for Sharing Guest Info With Feds

The state of Washington is suing Motel 6, alleging the low-cost hotel chain repeatedly provided detailed information about guests to federal immigration authorities for at least two years in violation of a state consumer protection law.


By

Alicia A. Caldwell and

Chris Kirkham

The state of Washington is suing Motel 6, alleging the low-cost hotel chain repeatedly provided detailed information about guests to federal immigration authorities for at least two years in violation of a state consumer protection law.

Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said Wednesday that at least six corporate-owned hotels provided U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials daily lists of guests, including their names, driver’s license numbers, dates of birth and room numbers.

“The scale of what Motel 6 was doing is deeply disturbing to me,” Mr. Ferguson said. “My message for Motel 6 is I am taking this case very, very seriously. They will be held accountable.”

Officials at Motel 6, which is owned by private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP, didn’t respond to requests for comment Wednesday. The chain has said in the past that it instructed hotel operators to refrain from voluntarily and routinely sharing guest information with federal immigration authorities.

Mr. Ferguson said Motel 6 committed more than 9,000 violations of the state’s Consumer Protection Act for what he described as egregious privacy violations from about Jan. 1, 2015, through September 2017.

He said the company’s practice of voluntarily sharing guest information also violated the budget hotel chain’s own privacy policy.

The state lawsuit, filed Wednesday in Seattle, seeks a permanent injunction to block the hotel chain from sharing guest information without a warrant.

Washington officials said at least six hotels in the state routinely provided lists of guests to ICE and at least six people suspected of being in the country illegally were detained as a result.

Mr. Ferguson said guest lists were provided daily and the hotel chain kept records of the information sharing using a “law enforcement acknowledgement form.”

ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said Wednesday the agency receives “viable enforcement tips from a host of sources” but declined to discuss its possible interactions with Motel 6. She added that motels and hotels have “frequently been exploited by criminal organizations engaged in highly dangerous illegal enterprises, including human trafficking and human smuggling.”

The agency isn’t named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

At least two Motel 6 operators in Arizona also have been accused by immigration advocates of sharing guest information without a warrant or subpoena.

In September the company acknowledged that some properties in the Phoenix area were voluntarily giving daily guests lists to ICE. In a statement in the fall,  the company apologized and said the actions were “undertaken at the local level without the knowledge of senior management.”

The company said it would tell staff at all of its more than 1,400 locations in the U.S. that they are prohibited from voluntarily providing such information to immigration authorities. “We will be undertaking a comprehensive review of our current practices and then issue updated, company-wide guidelines,” Motel 6 said at the time.

Mr. Ferguson said he launched his investigation after seeing news reports in Arizona.

“Motel 6 implied this was a local problem,” Mr. Ferguson said. “We have found that is not true.”

Motel 6’s parent company, G6 Hospitality LLC, was formed when Blackstone Group LP acquired the Motel 6 and Studio 6 chains from French hotel company Accor SA in 2012. The chains operate in the “economy” segment of the market, which have the lowest rates—an average of about $63 a night in the U.S., according to hotel industry tracker STR Inc.

The Motel 6 chain has more than 110,000 rooms in the U.S., making it the sixth-largest brand, according to STR. Holiday Inn Express, with more than 177,000 rooms, is the largest.

Greg Duff, a Seattle attorney who focuses on hospitality law, said hotels can run the risk of privacy violations by handing out guest information. He said he advises hotel clients to turn down such requests absent a warrant or court order.

“A guest’s activities in their property, particularly their hotel room, is expected to be kept private,” he said. “That’s one of the basic understandings.”

In November 2016, the Los Angeles city attorney sued G6 Hospitality, alleging that a Motel 6 location in the city’s San Fernando Valley was being used as a base for drug dealers and prostitution rings. Last August the city reached a $250,000 settlement with the owners, which included an agreement for guest registration requirements and a “do not rent” list for known criminals.

Washington state has taken a prominent role in fighting the Trump administration’s aggressive immigration policies. Officials there successfully challenged the president’s first travel ban, joined several other states in suing over records related to immigration arrests and deportations and is suing to block President Donald Trump from ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that has protected some young immigrants from deportation.

Mr. Trump has made cracking down on illegal immigration a priority of his administration. Since he took office, arrests of immigrants living in the country without proper documentation have increased about 40%, though deportations have declined as fewer people have been caught crossing the border illegally, according to statistics released by the federal government last year.

Acting ICE Director Tom Homan repeatedly has said the priority for immigration officials is finding and deporting serious criminals but agents would take action again anyone they encounter who doesn’t have permission to be in the U.S.

In an interview Wednesday with Fox News, Mr. Homan said ICE will increase its presence and step up its enforcement actions in California in 2018 in response to the state’s “sanctuary state” law, which went into effect on Monday. The law limits law-enforcement cooperation with federal immigration authorities. He also has vowed to step up enforcement in other so-called sanctuary cities that have policies that limit law enforcement cooperation with his agency.

Mr. Homan said in the interview that “California better hold on tight.”

Write to Alicia A. Caldwell at Alicia.Caldwell@wsj.com and Chris Kirkham at chris.kirkham@wsj.com

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