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SEATTLE — From a set of cozy offices at the University of Washington, Angelina Godoy and her team are waging a legal battle with the federal government to obtain secret files about Cowlitz County juvenile inmates.

For more than a year, the director of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights has sought the complete jail file of all immigrant minors held at the Cowlitz County Juvenile Detention Center between 2015 and July 2018. The county was initially willing to release the information, but the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency says it alone has authority to release the records, and the agency has declined to do so.

For Dr. Godoy, it’s a matter of protecting the vulnerable and making sure democratic values are upheld.

“(ICE is) insisting, ‘Not only do we have a right to hold kids, but nobody can even know about it, (or) have information about the reason why we’re holding them,’” Godoy said. “ ‘And if you ask for that information, we’re going to drag you to court.’ ”

She said the jail, in effect, became a “black site,” a military term for a secret location to detain alleged unlawful enemy combatants.

“I don’t use the term ‘black site’ lightly,” Godoy said. “The notion somebody should be locked up, and that the legal grounds on which they are locked up is not knowable, that you can’t even ask about, that is troubling. I think that that’s antithetical to democracy.”

ICE declined to comment on the case when reached this week, citing pending litigation.

Cowlitz County has a contract to hold minors in the jail under a contract with ICE. It’s one of three facilities that contract with the federal agency to hold minors for longer than 72 hours at a time.

A lawsuit from Cowlitz County is now asking for a judge to rule on whether the County can release the jail files to Godoy. And ICE has stepped in to request the case be moved to federal court. A Clark County judge is set to rule this month on that request.

Godoy’s efforts to obtain the jail files have burst into the national discussion about immigration. She was interviewed recently by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the Seattle Times.

She says the case “strikes to the heart of what human rights, as an entire field, is about.”

“I’m a parent myself,” Godoy said “The thought that anybody could take a child, lock them up without bringing charges against them, without having to bring them before a court of law, and just hold them in secrecy is chilling. Whether they’re immigrants or non-immigrants, it’s chilling.”

Godoy is the Helen H. Jackson Chair in Human Rights and a professor of international studies and law, societies and justice at the UW. She has authored books on vigilante justice and access to health care in Latin America. In addition to investigating ICE, the Center for Human Rights has projects studying mass incarceration and armed conflicts in El Salvador. The Legislature created the Center in 2009 to research and address human rights abuses.

“Students often ask me, ‘How can you not be totally depressed by the work you do?’ “ Godoy said. “It can be hard to look those things in the face, but it’s also really inspiring to see the work that’s being done to improve them. That’s what I try to focus on.”

Although her work sometimes puts her in legal contention with the federal government, she says she’s just doing research for the public.

“I have been a critic of ICE, but we’re not doing this to try to attack a government agency or undermine their work,” Godoy said. “We’re doing this to try to understand what’s happening and inform the public.”

Godoy and her researchers learned about Cowlitz County’s contract with ICE in 2017 and 2018 through public records requests as part of the Center’s broader project to investigate hidden immigration practices in Washington. When those practices raise human rights concerns, Godoy said, “then we want to bring that to public attention.”

The records revealed that 15 minors have stayed at the Juvenile Center for some amount of time between June 2013 and June 2018. Their stays ranged from just under five days to nearly 10 months. Cowlitz County Juvenile Justice Administrator Chad Connors said last week that there are currently four minors detained for ICE at the center, and he said there have been roughly 30 detained from Jan. 1, 2013 through the end of July 2019.

The County signed a contract in 2001 with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor to ICE, to house juveniles who are determined to be a safety risk while awaiting immigration court proceedings. The county’s role is to house them for as long as ICE needs while they go through the legal process.

In prepared statements sent by email this week, ICE said that’s only done in “rare circumstances.”

These juveniles “present a public safety or national security threat — including those with charges for murder or child molestation,” ICE said. “It would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous for the agency to allow these individuals to remain out of custody with a guardian.”

ICE currently has eight accompanied juveniles housed in facilities including Cowlitz County’s, the agency said. Of these eight, all are males, with one being 16 years old and seven being 17 years old.

ICE and Connors have said that the minors held at these facilities for ICE receive the same treatment and services as U.S. citizens held there. That includes medical, mental health, substance abuse, counseling and education services.

According to the contract, the County can only house “List 1” detainees. These include youths with criminal convictions or pending charges; those “chargeable as a criminal”; those who pose escape risks; “adjudicated delinquents”; those engaged in disruptive behavior while in a shelter program; or those who have committed a violent or threatening act toward themselves or another.

If all of that is the case, Godoy said, ICE ought to release the records and demonstrate why they’re dangerous.

“These kids may indeed be criminals,” Godoy said. “I don’t know. But it should trouble us that a court has not determined that they should be held. … If they’re truly a threat to public safety, criminals that represent a danger to the community … then evidence against them should be brought before a court of law.”

So she filed another request for the jail files of those minor inmates, redacted to conceal personally-identifying information. She wanted to see charges, conviction histories, booking sheets and other information that could explain on what basis ICE is holding the minors.

State law allows universities some increased access to sensitive records for research purposes, so Cowlitz County “was willing to release,” according to its court filings. The juvenile office compiled the records and told ICE it planned to only send files with names and other personally identifying information redacted, according to court filings. But ICE said that federal law prohibited release of the files even with those redactions.

In a September 2018 email from ICE to Connors, the county juvenile justice director, the agency said those jail files “cannot be released” through the County and must be requested through ICE.

Under federal regulations, local governments contracting with ICE cannot disclose “the name of, or other information relating to” detainees they hold for the agency. That information is under federal control and “shall not be public records” if it contains information on detainees.

So Godoy requested the records directly from ICE in February. The agency rejected her request and an appeal that the UW filed. ICE told the Center for Human Rights that the records were private and could only be released if the detained juveniles give permission, Godoy said.

But that’s circular logic, Godoy said: Without the records, she and her team don’t know who the juveniles are, let alone how to ask them for permission. Regardless, she said, her group asked for the files to be stripped of personally identifying information.

Godoy said her team treats information like those jail records sensitively and typically only publishes reports based on jail files, not the raw records themselves.

“I can’t make a promise about what we’d do with documents we haven’t seen,” Godoy said. “But we haven’t decided to publish them (yet). … The reason we want to see them is understand the reason why kids are being held, ... not to just pull people’s private information into the public domain.”

In February, the County filed suit in Cowlitz County Superior Court court, asking for a judge to determine whether it can lawfully release the records. In March, lawyers for the Center for Human Rights asked the Court to order the records released and rule that the federal law is not “an absolute bar” to their release.

In the meantime, a hearing Nov. 21 in Clark County will determine whether ICE can intervene in the case as a defendant and have the case moved to federal court.

A 2018 federal court ruling in United States V. State of California could provide ammunition against ICE’s claims. That court ruled that federal regulations only prohibited disclosure to the general public, not necessarily to other government entities, such as a public university.

That case is now on appeal, and officials in other jurisdictions have found the federal regulation to be absolute. The Texas attorney general determined in 2017 that ICE detainer listings in Travis County are confidential.

Cowlitz County Superior Court judges oversee the juvenile courts, including the detention facility, so the entire bench has recused itself to avoid a conflict of interest, Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning said. That’s why a Clark County judge will hear the case.

Whatever happens to Godoy’s request, Cowlitz County won’t be holding minors for ICE much longer. The Keep Washington Working Act, a law the Legislature passed in April, mandates all immigration detention agreements such as the Juvenile Center’s must end by Dec. 31, 2021. It also blocks any new agreements from being made.

Godoy said she’s had a lot of chances to back down on this investigation, but this is a case worth fighting for.

“There’s kids in a jail that the government is trying to keep secret,” Godoy said. “Nobody seems to even be paying attention to the fact that these are children’s lives that are ticking away there. I don’t know of a case that’s more compelling than that: A government hiding kids in jail, going after people just for trying to ask questions about why they’re there. That strikes to the heart of what human rights as an entire field is about … and what democracy and the rule of law are about. So I don’t feel that I could (or) should back down from that, and I don’t feel that any of us should look away once we’re faced with that knowledge.”

Nobody seems to even be paying attention to the fact that these are children’s lives that are ticking away there. I don’t know of a case that’s more compelling than that: A government hiding kids in jail, going after people just for trying to ask questions about why they’re there. — Angelina Godoy, director of the UW Center for Human Rights

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