In the wake of a U.S. judge’s order demanding federal officials explain why they are holding immigrant juveniles at Cowlitz County’s Youth Services Center, one of those juveniles was released this week due to the ruling.
A U.S. District Court Judge in June ordered U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement coordinators to report on why three ICE juveniles at the facility remained held there, including an explanation of their flight risk or presumed danger to the community. It required a report to be filed by Wednesday reviewing conditions at the Youth Services Center as well as a similar facility in Oregon.
The ruling also put a pause on any of the juveniles being sent to an adult facility upon aging out of the system. That order became relevant when “Arthur,” a pseudonym for a juvenile being held in Cowlitz County, turned 18 on Tuesday, according to University of Washington professor Dr. Angelina Godoy.
Godoy said Arthur has been held at the facility for nine months and was set to be sent to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma when he turned 18. But on the eve of his 18th birthday, ICE relented and allowed him to be released, according to court documents.
The ruling comes as part of the decades-old court settlement over the Flores agreement, which governs the U.S. government’s treatment of immigrant children.
ICE filed a brief Monday urging the judge to lift the requirement on transferring juveniles when they age out, citing “Arthur’s” imminent birthday. That request failed, according to another motion filed Tuesday by ICE: “ICE released (Arthur) because he turned 18 and could no longer be housed at Cowlitz nor transferred to adult custody.” The motion said ICE would continue to pursue the matter.Arthur had not been charged with a crime despite being detained, Godoy said, a claim based on information which she said was provided to her by a confidential source. That fact raised “grave” concerns about his detainment in general, Godoy said.
Godoy, who is the director of the UW’s Center for Human Rights, requested the criminal history and other information of ICE juveniles held in Cowlitz County back in 2018 as part of an investigation into Washington immigration practices. After ICE blocked juvenile justice officials from releasing that information, the county, which is willing to release it, went to the local courts last year to ask a judge to determine whether it can lawfully do so. ICE later removed the case to U.S. District Court, where the case now resides.
ICE claims that federal regulations give it sole authority to release the documents Godoy is seeking. Godoy and the county disagree and say the university is a public agency entitled to the records for research purposes. Godoy maintains that the government, by blocking access to the records, is effectively operating an undemocratic “black site” by holding juveniles without explaining their charges or cause for detention.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Youth Services Center has only four juveniles in detention, Court Administrator Chad Connors said Tuesday: Two ICE youth and two non-ICE youth. The ICE youth are under federal jurisdiction, so any decision about their release is up to federal officials and not Cowlitz County, Connors said.
Connors referred any questions about the release of ICE detainees to immigration officials. TDN has reached out to ICE for comment on “Arthur’s” case and other matters related to the detention of juveniles in Cowlitz County, although they have previously declined to comment on cases involving pending litigation.
In the meantime, Godoy has been seeking information on other cases like Arthur’s.
In April, the Center for Human Rights came out with a more forceful statement in light of the COVID-19 pandemic: Migrant juveniles must be released “immediately.”
“On multiple grounds, I believe those kids should be released,” Godoy said in a phone interview Tuesday. “The first and foremost reason has nothing to do with COVID-19. ... By definition, ICE is not an entity charged with holding people on criminal grounds. They can only hold people on civil immigration ... and I don’t think that’s an appropriate use of the (Youth Services Center). ... And I think the COVID-19 situation elevates those concerns. It makes what was arguably a violation of these young peoples’ rights more grave. ... It’s telling also that the facility chose to release its U.S. citizen kids held there, because they felt they couldn’t guarantee their safety in light of COVID-19. Well, why didn’t that apply to (the ICE juveniles.)”
In the June U.S. District Court ruling, and over concerns about the spread of coronavirus, the judge ordered all children currently held in three ICE family detention centers for more than 20 days to be released by July 17. However, that did not apply to the juveniles being held at Youth Services Center.
Organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union have encouraged a public outreach campaign to bring an end to the detention of the juveniles. The ACLU has called on ICE specifically to release the juveniles held in the county.
Meanwhile, the Washington Immigrant Solidarity Network started a letter writing campaign to the county commissioners, asking them to terminate the contract with ICE.
Commissioner Dennis Weber said he’s received calls and emails on the topic.
“This is a program supervised by our five Superior Court Judges,” he said over email. “I can’t imagine they would allow illegal actions to take place. I have always referred the emailers to the judges and their administrator.”
Weber said he doesn’t currently have any plans to bring the issue of ending the contract to a vote among the commissioners. He said he trusts local judges to effectively oversee the program.
Commissioners Arne Mortensen and Joe Gardener could not be reached for comment.
Regardless of what comes out of the myriad court cases, and despite appeals to county officials and political battles over the fate of the juveniles, state legislation passed in April mandates the county’s agreement with ICE must end by the close of 2021.