Turning 18 isn't a happy occasion at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children in Miami-Dade County, Florida. In at least 14 cases, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have reportedly waited for undocumented minors at the shelter to turn 18, then almost immediately put them in handcuffs and hauled them off to an adult immigration jail.
"When they turn 18, it's basically, 'Happy birthday,' and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers," Lisa Lehner, an attorney with the nonprofit legal group Americans for Immigrant Justice, tells the Miami New Times.
Nolbiz Orellana, a native of Honduras, is one of the undocumented immigrants Lehner's organization is representing. He says he fled Honduras in January at the age of 17 after one of his abusive mother's gang associates threatened him with a gun. Orellana crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, asked for asylum, and was placed in the Homestead shelter.
Orellana turned 18 on April 8, then things started to get a whole lot worse. The New Times reports:
That's when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents showed up at the children's shelter, slapped handcuffs on Orellana's wrists, chained them to his waist, and shackled his legs together. The agents drove Orellana to the Broward Transitional Center, an infamous immigration jail in Pompano Beach, where he was thrown into a cell with men twice his age.
According to Lehner, 13 other undocumented teens at the Homestead center have suffered similar fates. Though an ICE spokesperson in Miami tells the New Times that the agency hasn't done anything wrong, Lehner says this practice is completely illegal.
"It violates specific, federal law and goes against congressional intent as to what is supposed to be happening with these kids," Lehner tells the New York Daily News. "There are two federal statutes that say when a child turns 18, it's the responsibility of ICE to find the least restrictive setting for them to take residence if they are going to be staying in the country. Instead of finding the least restrictive setting, they are putting them in the most restrictive setting."
She's right. In 1997, the federal government reached a settlement in the case of Jenny Flores, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador. The government agreed to release undocumented minors into the "least restrictive" setting as quickly as possible. The Trump administration tried to modify this settlement in July, but that attempt was rejected by a federal judge in California.
The Flores settlement was codified in 2008 by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. In 2013, an amendment to that law extended its protections to undocumented children taken into custody by ICE after they turn 18.
Under the Trump administration, it seems these rules are simply being ignored. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) says that in the 2014 fiscal year, only one percent of undocumented minors in the agency's care turned 18. In 2017, 2.4 percent "aged out."
In Orellana's case, Lehner says he should have been released to his relatives in Nebraska. Instead, ICE waited until his 18th birthday and threw him in "prison," she tells the Daily News.
Thus far, Americans for Immigrant Justice has filed suits on behalf of seven of the 14 undocumented teens taken into ICE custody as soon as they turned 18. Five off those teens have been released, but according to Lehner, it's not enough.
"We've been successful in filing these petitions and getting ICE to act, but it would be much better if ICE would just stop this process in the first place," she tells the New Times. "The law is crystal clear."