Cowlitz County Superior Court’s judges are ending the last contract in the U.S. to house unaccompanied immigrant youth in a facility for more than 72 hours.
The judges’ decision announced Feb. 5 ends the county’s controversial contract with Immigration Customs and Enforcement to hold juveniles at the local youth facility, citing a significant increase in the length of stay and a new state law requiring such agreements to end this year.
Over the past year, regional and local advocates have called for the contract’s end over concerns for youth and claims that detention of juveniles for ICE violates international human rights standards.
The contract will end in 60 days. One ICE detainee is currently housed at the Cowlitz Youth Services Center, said Chad Connors, court administrator.
Connors said ICE could send more detainees to Longview before the contract ends but said he doubts the facility will get more youth. It’s up to the federal agency what will happen with the youth currently at the Cowlitz facility, he said.
The county’s contract, struck in 2001, was signed with the Department of Justice’s Immigration and Naturalization Service, which dissolved in 2003. For $170 per person, per day, Cowlitz County houses juveniles who are determined to be a danger to the community while they undergo immigration court proceedings. The decision to detain or release individual juveniles is up to ICE.
Until December, the Cowlitz County Board of Commissioners believed it had control over the contract.
The judges never urged the commission to end the contract, as it complies with state and federal law and staff to provide “excellent service” to detainees, according to the county Superior Court press release.
From mid-October to mid-December, people asked the commissioners to end the contract during the board’s weekly meetings. After the commissioners asked the judges for more information, legal council looked into the contract and had the opinion the judges have authority over it, not the commissioners, Judge Michael Evans said Monday.
In December, judges notified the commission and reviewed if the contract should continue, Evans said. They looked into the health, safety and welfare of the youth, and investigated concerns brought to the commissioners and judges, he said.
The length of time ICE youth detainees were held at the Cowlitz facility was a main consideration in ending the contract, Evans said.
For a local juvenile, the average length of stay has been eight to 10 days, but this sometimes was extended to three to six months, Connors said.
Data released by ICE in 2017 show that holding times at the Cowlitz Juvenile Detention Center have on average risen since 2009. Most juveniles booked in 2009 were held for less than a month, but between 2010 and 2017, the average was around two or three months. At the high end, one juvenile was held from February 2016 to October 2016, for a total of 242 days.
According to ICE Detention Statistics reports, in 2019, the average length of stay was more than three-and-a-half months and increased to more than four months in 2020.
Connors previously said county juvenile justice authorities have no control over the length of juveniles’ legal proceedings, which are handled by federal immigration courts.
While some ICE detainees may have been convicted of a crime or may face criminal charges in another jurisdiction, ICE detention is limited to administrative immigration violations, according to a report by the University of Washington Human Rights Center.
In Cowlitz County, the youth held for ICE are “List 1” detainees, a category that local and federal officials say generally includes youth accused of particularly violent crimes and gang affiliation. They have previously entered the country unlawfully and were determined by ICE to be a safety risk, court officials say. Most had been living with family somewhere in the U.S. prior to their detainment.
List 1 detainees aren’t necessarily convicted or even charged with a “dangerous” crime. The List 1 determination also includes “escape risks,” “adjudicated delinquents” and “juveniles who engage in disruptive behavior while in a licensed shelter program.”
Samantha Ratcliffe, senior immigration attorney with Immigration Defense Oregon, said the criminal history of clients in the Cowlitz facility has ranged but “categorizing them as extremely dangerous doesn’t match with our experience with these kids.”
While in the Youth Services Center, ICE detainees are treated the same as others, and spend meals, school and the rest of their days mixed in with the other juveniles, Connors said.
Ratcliffe and others who spoke out against the contract during county commissioner meetings and at several protests, argued the facility isn’t a suitable place to keep youth for a civil offense.
Contract opponents have several concerns about immigrant youths’ time in the facility, including a lack of time outdoors and hours spent in their cells with nothing to do. The solitary time produces depression and anxiety symptoms, according to a 2020 report on the facility from Dr. Amy Cohen, a child psychiatrist.
“It’s just very stressful for a teenager to be ripped away from their families and be put in this facility where don’t know when they’re gonna get out,” Ratcliffe said.
In one “egregious” case, Ratcliffe said her client complained he was in pain for days and was told to drink water and go to his room before being taken to the hospital for emergency surgery for a burst appendix.
Evans said the judges looked at records, interviewed staff and found the juvenile was “taken care of and well attended to.”
Connors stressed that the judges and Superior Court have the “utmost confidence in staff, the care provided to the children and the overall program.” There has been a lot said about the quality of care that isn’t accurate, he said.
Facilities designed for youth with longer sentences are designed differently and have more resources and programs to “keep people’s minds and senses active,” Evans said.
While she is happy the contract is ending, Ratcliffe said she is “a little disappointed in the lack of responsibility” the county is taking.
Ricardo Rodriguez, a Longview resident who advocated for ending the contract, said he was glad to see the Superior Court’s announcement.
“It’s really important to the kids that they don’t continue with this trauma,” he said. “This is why I do this, to make a little change, for something to change in the system for everybody to be equal.”