WASHINGTON (CN) — The Trump administration violated federal law by shipping off teenage immigrants to ICE prisons on their 18th birthday without going through the mandatory channels to find safer alternatives, a judge ruled Thursday.
Unaccompanied minors apprehended by immigration officials are sent to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, where they are to be transferred to youth shelters or released to sponsors — often family members already settled in the country.
Under the Trump administration, however, the clock runs out when an unaccompanied immigrant child turns 18 years old.
U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras ruled Thursday that the government has systematically failed to assess the least restrictive placement for the “age-outs,” instead transferring them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities.
The Obama appointee determined based on testimony and evidence presented at a bench trial in January that ICE has not trained its officers to properly consider placement for each 18-year-old, making transfers to adult detention centers nearly automatically.
“Field officers are left with nearly unbridled discretion to make age-out custody determinations however they would like, and this discretion is exercised in ways that does not comply with the agency’s statutory obligations,” Contreras wrote in a 180-page findings of fact and conclusions of law.
The National Immigrant Justice Center, along with Kirkland & Ellis, challenged the Department of Homeland Security’s transfer of age-outs to ICE prisons in a two-year legal battle that culminated with Thursday’s ruling.
“In the most extreme cases, this means that ICE field officers refuse to release age-outs to organizational sponsors who have said they would be happy to take them in, or to eighteen-year-olds’ own parents living in the United States, when nothing in the age-outs’ records indicated they posed a flight risk or a danger to themselves or to the public,” Contreras explained.
ICE placed just 34 of 1,360 age-outs in its ATD program, short for Alternatives to Detention, from 2018, when the government implemented a new data system documenting age-out custody determinations, to May 2019.
“These are not the decisionmaking processes that Congress required,” the judge added.
At the heart of the class action is Wilmer Garcia Ramirez, who fled to the United States alone in 2017, and Sulma Hernandez Alfaro, a minor and asylum seeker.
Ramirez was placed for eight months in an Arizona detention center after turning 18, despite a family friend being willing to sponsor his release. A youth shelter was willing to take in Alfaro, but she too was placed in an ICE detention center when she turned 18.
Gianna Borroto, a National Immigrant Justice Center attorney in the case, said Congress protects unaccompanied immigrant children as they are uniquely vulnerable.
“ICE’s practice of systematically jailing children on their 18th birthday violates these important protections under the law,” Borroto said in a statement Thursday.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday’s ruling.
Kate Melloy Goettel, litigation director for the American Immigration Council, said she is ecstatic that the court is holding ICE accountable for failing children and placing them in an abusive system.
“Based on ICE’s own data and testimony, we proved at trial that ICE field offices were automatically sending kids to ICE jail without even considering safer and more appropriate options,” Goettel, who argued the case as an attorney at the National Immigrant Justice Center, said in a statement Thursday.
Contreras indicated he would issue an order directing ICE how to remedy its faulty system to better comply with a 2013 amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, requiring the agency to consider the least restrictive setting available for unaccompanied teenagers.
“To put it in terms of the Administrative Procedure Act, ICE has acted in a manner that is ‘arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion’ and—most clearly—‘otherwise not in accordance with law,’” the judge concluded.