J.E.C.M., a 14-year-old boy, fled from Honduras with a friend to escape persecution, including threats to his life.
When he entered the United States, he was arrested by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Eventually, he was placed in a high-security detention facility in Alexandria, Virginia, after telling a clinician that he did not want to be in jail, and that he preferred to be with his family.
J.E.C.M’s sister and her partner, Jose Jimenez Saravia, wanted to sponsor the boy – who was being bullied by older detainees – and take him home with them. But the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is supposed to help unaccompanied refugee minors seek safe haven in the United States, delayed the sponsorship process.
The ORR required members of the Jimenez Saravia household to submit biographical and biometric information as a pre-condition of J.E.C.M.’s release, which held up the boy’s release for several months. The family members feared – correctly – that this information would be used for immigration enforcement purposes.
The family is among the plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit the SPLC filed today against the Trump administration on behalf of over 10,000 children currently being held in over 100 detention centers across the country.
The policy, an effort to facilitate the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’) efforts to arrest and remove possible sponsors who may be undocumented, has led to far fewer individuals coming forward on behalf of children in detention.
The lawsuit seeks the release of children who have sponsors available to take them into their homes, and to reform this system that has resulted in prolonged detention for thousands of children around the nation.
“If the president is really interested in taking on a crisis in regard to the immigration situation – this is one he has the power to solve, since his administration created it,” said Mary Bauer, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project. “We have over 10,000 children in custody right now because this administration is using them as bait. This deplorable, deliberate policy means that these children are languishing in detention for months at a time.”
The lawsuit, originally filed last August in the federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, on behalf of a group of young people being held there, reveals that the alarming number of children that continue to be held for long periods of time is now at a crisis level.
The lawsuit charges that this situation is primarily the result of the ongoing cooperation between the ORR and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) which, hand-in-hand with family separation, is a deliberate strategy to deter vulnerable migrants from traveling to the U.S.
A memo drafted in late 2017 and obtained on January 17, 2019, reveals that the administration intended the very result this policy has caused: the prolonged detention of children.
In April 2018, ORR entered into a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with DHS. Under the agreement, ORR began to share with ICE the information it gathered during the family reunification petition process about sponsors and others living in the household.
This scheme is laid out in internal documents provided by a whistleblower that were made public last Thursday. The documents demonstrate that this policy is a part of the same strategy as the infamous family separation policy, and that the government knew it would result in fewer sponsors coming forward and children remaining in custody for longer periods of time.
Despite the administration’s announcement in mid-December that the policy would be altered to only apply to sponsors and not family or household members, little has changed. The partnership between ORR and ICE remains in place and continues to have an enormously chilling effect on potential sponsors coming forward on behalf of these children.
The lawsuit also outlines the completely disorganized and arbitrary sponsorship process, which has created an impenetrable maze for potential sponsors. Together these unlawful and abhorrent policies are having an incredibly negative impact on these already vulnerable immigrant children.
Among the plaintiffs is M.C.L., 14, who fled Mexico last fall. She was forced to leave her home after a series of events involving a group of violent men. They killed three of her uncles, broke into her family’s home, and threatened her at gunpoint. The teen hoped to rejoin her mother in San Fernando. Instead, she was taken to a shelter in Florida, a 2,350-capacity facility that was not subject to state licensure and corresponding child welfare inspections.
Plaintiff A.Y.S.R. will turn 18 in three months at the Crittenton youth detention facility in Orange County, California. After a terrifying odyssey from El Salvador where she was routinely sexually abused by a relative who is a high-ranking member of a Salvadoran gang, A.Y.S.R. and her 1-year-old son presented themselves at a port of entry in Arizona in September 2018. When immigration officials tried to separate them, she resisted and was sent to a CBP holding facility commonly known as the “icebox” for its freezing temperatures and lack of adequate facilities to care for children.
The plaintiffs include a dozen immigrant children who are currently detained and their sponsors, as well as the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc. (CLINIC) and the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP), organizations that assist immigrant youth and their family members – as well as nonprofits – to navigate the immigration system, including the ORR sponsorship process.
The SPLC filed the lawsuit in conjunction with Legal Aid Justice Center and Sterne, Kessler, Goldstein & Fox PLLC.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images