Immigrant Rights Group Sues ICE for Illegally Jailing 18-Year-Olds

By Alfonso Serrano Mar 06, 2018

An immigrant advocacy group filed a class action lawsuit on Monday (March 5) against Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on behalf of immigrant teenagers who arrived in the United States alone and were subsequently detained in ICE centers after turning 18.

Federal law states that when unaccompanied migrant children in custody of the Department of Health and Human ServicesOffice of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) turn 18, ICE must "consider placement in the least restrictive setting available after taking into account the [individual’s] danger to self, danger to the community and risk of flight." 

The suit, filed by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), argues that ICE routinely fails to comply with that federal measure and systematically jails teens in adult prisons.

"Teens who flee alone to seek safety in the United States need our protection and support, which should not suddenly disappear on their 18th birthdays," Kate Melloy Goettel of NIJC, said in a statement. "Congress extended some protections afforded to unaccompanied immigrant children beyond when they turned 18. Imprisoning young men and women makes them vulnerable to abuse, and risks traumatizing those who already have fled persecution or survived perilous journeys."

In February, the ORR was the target of another suit. Filed by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the lawsuit claims the ORR is holding undocumented immigrant children in prolonged detention. The civil liberties groups says that more than 40 children are being detained indefinitely due to a 2017 policy change requiring ORR’s director to approve the release of any child held in its custody.

The NYCLU suit says that, in a reversal of federal laws intended to protect vulnerable children, the Trump administration has "vilified and targeted them," subjecting the children to "restrictive imprisonment."

Monday’s lawsuit from the NIJC highlights cases of several children who came to the U.S. seeking a safe haven. They include 18-year-old Wilmer García Ramírez, a lead plaintiff who has been locked up in an ICE adult detention center in Eloy, Arizona, since he turned 18. Another teen, Sulma Hernández Alfaro, has an asylum application pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. ORR transferred her to an ICE adult detention center in Texas on her 18th birthday.

"At bottom, this case is about the rule of law," Steve Patton of Kirkland & Ellis LLP and pro bono co-counsel for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. "In 2013, Congress enacted a statute requiring that ICE ‘shall consider placement’ of unaccompanied immigrant teenagers like the plaintiffs here ‘in the least restrictive setting available,’ and that ICE ‘shall’ make available to them alternatives to adult detention. Our suit asks the courts to enforce these unambiguous statutory directives."