AUG 24, 2018 1:32PM EDT
Immigration officers are handcuffing and jailing unaccompanied immigrant detainees on their 18th birthdays, according to a new report by The Miami New Times.
Unaccompanied minors who are under 18 have certain protections, like more comfortable living situations and connection to their families, that undocumented immigrants over 18 are not provided. According to Lisa Lehner, an attorney with Americans for Immigrant Justice, the detainees are immediately treated as adults once they reach 18. “When they turn 18, it’s basically, ‘Happy birthday,’ and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers,” Lehner told the New Times.
Immigration agents reportedly place handcuffs on the newly adult detainees, chain their handcuffs to their waists, shackle their legs together, and drive them to immigration jails. There, the 18-year-olds are often put into cells with people twice their age, the New Times reported. Since April, ICE agents have done this to over a dozen 18-year-olds at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Florida, according to the New Times’ report.
“I believe it’s a psychological strategy they’re using to try to get them to just give up and go back home, even if they know they’ll be killed if they go back,” Janet Gwilym, the managing attorney for the Seattle branch of Kids in Need of Defense, told the New Times.
Lehner told the New Times that one thing meant to keep teenagers safe from this kind of treatment is what’s known as the Flores settlement. The agreement requires federal authorities to seek the least restrictive environment for minors, including alternate housing like placement with relatives or foster care — and they’re required to do it quickly.
But Lehner told the New Times that ICE is ignoring the Flores agreement, and simply placing 18-year-olds in jail cells without due process, instead of trying to release them to relatives or guardians.
“It violates specific, federal law and goes against congressional intent as to what is supposed to be happening with these kids,” Lehner told The New York Daily News. “There are two federal statutes that say when a child turns 18, it’s the responsibility of ICE to find the least restrictive setting for them to take residence if they are going to be staying in the country. Instead of finding the least restrictive setting, they are putting them in the most restrictive setting.”
The number of unaccompanied minors celebrating their 18th birthdays in detention centers and then being turned over to ICE has more than doubled since 2014, according to a report by Documented. That means federal authorities are no longer required to house them in the least restrictive environment. In 2017, 2.4% of unaccompanied minors turned 18 and were turned over to ICE, compared to just 1% in 2014, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) numbers obtained by Documented.
In response to the birthday treatment, activists like Lehner are filing lawsuits to get the 18-year-olds released from custody. Since the suits, five detainees have reportedly been released to relatives or guardians, two cases are still pending, and the organization expects to file several more suits.
When asked for comment, ICE provided the following statement to Teen Vogue: “ICE is unable to comment on pending legal matters. ICE makes arrest and custody determinations on an individual basis based on the totality of the circumstances and does so in compliance with federal law and agency policy.” Teen Vogue has also asked ORR for comment and will update this story when we hear back.
Read it via Teen Vogue here.