Cowlitz County should immediately release the three migrant juveniles it is holding for federal immigration authorities due to dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Washington researchers urged Thursday.
The request is part of a report by the UW and the Lewis and Clark Law School that reasserts claims that the detention of juveniles for Immigration Customs and Enforcement in Cowlitz County and The Dalles, Ore., is “without access to due process protections ... (and violates) international human rights standards, the U.S. Constitution, and Washington and Oregon state law.”
Local juvenile justice officials already have released most youths in recent weeks and taken steps to bolster hygiene and social distancing.
Juvenile Justice Administrator Chad Connors said Thursday it’s up to the feds whether the three ICE youth can be released.
“The decisions to detain or release ICE youth is a federal issue,” Connors said in an email. “State court judges do not have jurisdiction over immigration matters.”
The report questions whether ICE even has legal authority to detain the juveniles, who have been held without public access to information about their criminal history, charges and other information.
“It appears likely that these children have fallen through the legal cracks, and are held in a legal limbo where they have access to few of the effective protections ensured by the ... the U.S. Constitution,” the report alleges.
The report is the latest update in a two-year legal fight over information about the juveniles held at the Cowlitz Youth Services Center, which is one of three U.S. facilities where ICE is approved to house unaccompanied minors for more than 72 hours at a time.
UW professor Angelina Godoy, who is the director of the UW’s Center for Human Rights requested the criminal history and other information of the minors in 2018 as part of an investigation into Washington immigration practices. ICE blocked juvenile justice officials from releasing that information, so 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.
ICE claims that federal regulations give it sole authority to release the documents. Godoy and the county disagree and say the university is a public agency entitled to the records for research purposes. She maintains that the government, by blocking access to the records, is effectively operating an undemocratic “black site” by holding the juveniles without explaining their charges or causes for detention.
The Thursday report cites anonymous interviews with non-migrant former detainees at juvenile detention who say the ICE juveniles typically didn’t know why they were held in detention at all. As far as having an attorney, “it is unknown how many kids remain unrepresented,” the report claims.
Most if not all of the ICE detainees are from outside the area, Connors said, but in-person visits with parents, guardians and attorneys are allowed (although not during the pandemic.) Detainees also have unlimited phone access and the ability to use internet video calling, he said.
While the county doesn’t provide attorneys for the youth because they’re in immigration court, all of the ICE juveniles in detention currently have an attorney, and contact information for attorneys is provided.
The report also says that “According to their attorneys, migrant youth do not have access to notebooks or pens, and are only allowed to keep legal documents — no books— in their cells.”
Not so, Connors said Thursday: Juveniles are allowed two books, a Bible and a deck of playing cards in their cell, he said. Notebooks and pens are not allowed in cells for safety reasons, he said; they can be used to harm oneself or others.
The slow-burn legal battle took a step forward last week, when U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton rebuffed attempts to move the case back into local courts. Leighton said the case will remain in federal court and urged all parties to focus on the core legal question in the case: Can the records be released?
“The true dispute here is between UW/Cowlitz, which believe the records should be released with redactions and conditions, and the U.S., which believes they cannot be released at all,” Leighton found. “Holding things up to re-litigate party alignment is especially pointless here because all the parties have asserted claims of their own and no one is defending themselves from liability.”
TDN has reached out to ICE for specific comment on the case, though they have previously declined to comment on pending litigation.
Whatever happens in the county’s lawsuit, state legislation passed in April mandates that the county’s agreement with ICE must end by the end of 2021.