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Since 2013, the Cowlitz County Juvenile Detention Center has held 15 children brought in by federal immigration agents, according to newly compiled data from the Juvenile Court administration.

The jail has contracted with Immigration and Customs Enforcement since 2001 to house juveniles who have an outstanding or pending removal order, Juvenile Court Administrator Chad Connors said. Cowlitz County’s juvenile facility is one of three in the nation authorized by ICE to hold juveniles under the age of 18 for more than 72 hours, although there are currently none held there, Connors said.

Connors said juveniles detained by ICE in this way are not children separated from their families due to the recent “zero tolerance” procedures at the U.S.- Mexico border, a practice that caused a recent uproar over President Trump’s immigration policies. Rather, they are juveniles who previously entered the country unlawfully and were determined by ICE to be a safety risk, often from having committed or been accused of some sort of violent crime.

“Some of these kids are gang involved,” Connors said. “Some were committing violent crimes on the streets. (ICE) needs a place to detain them while going through due process. Kids we’ve had lately have documented gang ties. (Some) have identified with MS-13 (an international criminal gang known for brutal murders). There’s a public safety interest (in keeping them detained).”

Most of the juveniles ICE detains at the detention center had been living with their parents somewhere in the U.S. previously, 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. Connors said county juvenile justice authorities have no control over the length of juveniles’ legal proceedings, which are handled by federal immigration courts.

The county currently charges ICE $170 a day for each bed it uses to house a juvenile. The county’s role, Connors said, is merely to house them for as long as ICE wants while they go through the legal process.

Connors also said that juveniles held by ICE are treated the same as other juveniles at the detention center.

“Our model is, we’re gonna take care of these kids,” he said, “provide them a safe, secure environment, all the services we do for any youth. Medical, mental health, substance abuse, counseling, education services. We make all these programs available to everyone. It can be a real productive opportunity for them to take advantage of those services.”

In an email, ICE spokesperson Carissa Cutrell said the agency holds individuals only while they are undergoing deportation proceedings.

“ICE has contracted with the Cowlitz County Juvenile Detention Center since May 2001 to provide detention space for minors with criminal histories who pose a public safety threat and are subject to immigration enforcement,” Cutrell said.

ICE contracts with nine juvenile detention centers to separate and hold children members during immigration proceedings, but only three of those are authorized to hold them for more than 72 hours: Northern Oregon Juvenile Detention facility in The Dalles, Oregon, Abraxas Academy Detention Center in Morgantown, Pennsylvania; and the Cowlitz County facility.

“Geographically, I don’t know why they chose us,” Connors said of ICE’s decision to contract with Cowlitz County. “It was a contract I inherited.”

In 2017, Commissioner Joe Gardner signed the revision raising the daily bed rate from $136.42 to $170. He concurred that the county only acts as a contractor to house the juveniles for ICE.

“We basically just contract with them for that rate,” Gardner said. “While their deportation services are starting, we can hold for them ICE.”

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