Immigration and Customs Enforcement is legally required to unite migrant children held in youth shelters with family or guardians as soon as possible, and place them in the “least restrictive” settings until they do so. But increasingly, children who turn 18 in youth shelters are being sent to adult detention facilities or jail without a court date, or chance to transfer to a less prohibitive setting.
The Miami New Times reports on one such incident in Florida:
When one of his abusive mother’s gangbanger friends held a gun to his chest and threatened to pull the trigger, Nolbiz Orellana knew he’d die in Honduras. So this past January, the then-17-year-old made the harrowing journey to the U.S.-Mexico border, crossed over, and asked for asylum.
Instead of releasing him to his relatives in Nebraska, though, the feds sent him to the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children. Orellana spent three months in the remote South Miami-Dade facility until April 8 — his birthday.
“When they turn 18, it’s basically, ‘Happy birthday,’ and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers,” Lisa Lehner, a lawyer at Americans for Immigrant Justice who represents Orellana, told the Miami New Times, calling the arrests “a nationwide problem.”
According to New York immigration policy website Documented NY, in 2017 the number of migrant children in detention who “aged out” more than doubled. Those kids are likely being tossed into jails by ICE by default, Lehner said, which may be a violation of federal law. According to the New Times piece, the 1997 Flores Settlement requires authorities to attempt to reconnect kids with family or guardians as soon as possible, and in 2013, Congress also amended an anti-trafficking law that expanded protections to unaccompanied migrant children in ICE custody, requiring that that they be transferred to “least restrictive” settings as soon as possible.
Americans for Immigrant Justice has filed seven lawsuits on behalf of detained 18-year-olds. “We’ve been successful in filing these petitions and getting ICE to act, but it would be much better if ICE would just stop this process in the first place,” Lehner said. “The law is crystal clear.” (An ICE spokesperson told the New Times that ICE “conducts targeted enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy.”)
In April, journalist Aura Bogado reported at the Center for Investigative Reporting that an internal ICE handbook from 2017 confirmed federal law “requires ICE consider least restrictive settings when making custody determinations of this group.” The handbook was among court documents in a federal suit brought forward by Wilmer Garcia Ramirez, a migrant teen who was transferred from a youth shelter to Eloy Detention Center in Arizona on his 18th birthday instead of reunited with his sponsor, a family friend in Pennsylvania.
Janet Gwilym, a lawyer at Kids in Need of Defense, which represents unaccompanied minors, told the Miami New Times that at some shelters, ICE has created a strategy around arresting 17-year-olds just minutes before their birthdays. “I believe it’s a psychological strategy they’re using to try to get them to just give up and go back back home,” she said, “even if they know they’ll be killed if they go back.” Read the full Miami New Times piece here.