On Roberto’s 18th birthday in September, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers put metal cuffs on his hands and legs and a chain around his waist. They then drove him two hours from Homestead, the immigrant children’s shelter where he had been staying since May, to The Broward Transitional Center, an adult detention facility in Pompano Beach, Florida.
Once Roberto — a pseudonym HuffPost is using to protect his identity — arrived, he changed into an orange jumpsuit and entered the jail with guards standing at every exit and bunk beds for the almost 600 men inside. He was imprisoned, despite having a relative who had applied to sponsor him.
Lisa Lehner, an attorney at Americans For Immigrant Justice (AIJ) who worked on Roberto’s case, says she sees teenagers aging out of shelters and being transferred to adult detention in record numbers, due to the government’s recent crackdown on sponsors.
Almost four months earlier, Roberto’s California-based uncle had applied to sponsor him so they could live together. But throughout that time, Lehner says the government failed to process his uncle’s fingerprints before Roberto turned 18, a situation that Lehner says has become increasingly common because of a backlogged system.
“It’s ridiculous for it to take 100 days for someone’s fingerprints to run,” said Lehner. “[And] it’s unconscionable that ICE is violating clear federal law and taking [teenagers] to the most restrictive setting as opposed to the least restrictive setting.”
Since June, when the government made the process of vetting sponsors more arduous, multiple legal organizations told HuffPost that the number of 18-year-old clients who are sent to ICE detention on their birthdays has increased, and in a few cases, at least doubled.
The new standards, which require all sponsors and everyone in their households to be fingerprinted as part of a background check, mean application processing times have ballooned from under a month to two or three months and that children are now spending a record amount of time in detention. In addition, advocates say fewer sponsors are coming forward in the first place, since ICE is now more involved in the vetting process and has begun using information from applications to arrest undocumented immigrants.
The recent increase in teenagers being sent to adult detention reflects a larger trend: Between 2014 and 2017, the percentage of immigrants aging out of children’s shelters almost tripled to approximately 250 kids ― a number that has almost certainly gone up now that the number of detained children has reached an all-time high of 12,300. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) said in an email that the agency’s 2018 data is not yet available.
Yet despite a federal law stating that ICE should place these immigrants in the “least restrictive setting” possible, lawyers from the National Immigrant Justice Center have accused immigration officers of sending teenagers straight to adult detention in a recent lawsuit.
In an email, an ORR representative told HuffPost that the agency would not “speculate and has no specific data to confirm this theory” that increased vetting has led to more age-outs. When HuffPost asked ICE about whether it was sending 18-year-olds straight to adult detention in violation of federal law, a representative responded that “18-year-olds are not minors.”
“Turning 18 is sort of a coming-of-age ritual,” said Holly Cooper, co-director of the immigration law clinic at The University of California, Davis. “But for these children, it’s ‘Happy Birthday, we’re sending you to prison.’ It’s just a very inhumane process that’s happening.”
Nadir worries that when he turns 18 on Nov. 4, he’ll be shackled and sent to ICE detention. After the teenager, whose real identity HuffPost is protecting with a pseudonym, fled violence in India and was sent to an Arizona shelter at the end of July, a family friend offered to sponsor him. But according to his lawyer, ORR told the sponsor there likely wouldn’t be enough time to process his fingerprints in the three months before Nadir turned 18.
Casey Frank, an attorney from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project who is representing Nadir, says her client repeatedly asks, “What will happen on my birthday?” But Nadir won’t find out until Nov. 4 whether ICE will release him or put him in adult detention ― and Frank worries it will be the latter.
“I’m nervous every time a client turns 18,” Frank said. “It’s my worst nightmare.”
Her colleague, Golden McCarthy, says no bureaucratic issue should stand in the way of keeping a child safe. “There isn’t a concern that the sponsor is a danger to the child and there isn’t a concern that there is trafficking,” said the children’s program director at the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. “To have such severe consequences happen to this young man is disconcerting.”
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) claims the new policies will keep children safe from traffickers, but experts say they are unnecessary additions to the existing security measures. Non-parental sponsors were already required to submit fingerprints and extensive documentation before the new policy was implemented, and ORR staff often visit the homes of potential sponsors to check the conditions. Lawyers say that instead of protecting kids, increased vetting causes unnecessary delays that further traumatize children.
“This is just another form of family separation,” said Lehner. “We’re keeping children from their parents and [relatives] for an unjustified period of time and what are we vetting here? The parents aren’t harming anyone … it’s just unreasonable.”
Lehner says there’s no proof that the new policies keep kids safer, yet the negative effects of child detention are well-documented.
“You are transferred in handcuffs to a facility that’s a prison and there’s no one in your peer group, no relatives and no family who you can relate to,” Lehner said. “It’s just continuing trauma with no real respite.”
Last August, Paula cried in the back of the truck while ICE officers drove her to an adult detention facility in Texas on her 18th birthday. She was terrified, and those fears were well-founded. At the facility, she recalls sleeping on a bunk bed in a big area with 30 other women who were older than her and constantly fighting with one another. The guards would aggressively insult her and the other inmates, saying they were “good for nothing,” and she says the food was always cold and undercooked. Paula saw women cutting themselves, and at times, thought of doing the same.
“I would ask myself, ‘What was it that I had done to suffer like this?’” said Paula, a pseudonym HuffPost is using to protect her identity. “There were times I would think about wanting to hurt myself because I felt so alone.”
Paula says being in adult detention was a brutal contrast to the children’s shelter she had left, where she slept in a room with one another girl, had friends her age, and easy access to social workers and nurses.
Experts say that in addition to a lack of peer and professional support, it’s also harder for 18-year-olds to win their asylum cases from adult detention. They aren’t given presentations about their legal rights, cannot easily communicate with lawyers and are no longer eligible for the same legal protections as a minor.
“(ICE) custody is a much more punitive situation,” said Jennifer Podkul, the director of policy for Kids In Need Of Defense (KIND). “We’re putting these kids, who are already having a hard time explaining their story, [in adult detention] and making it much harder for them.”
Lawyers are concerned that the new vetting requirements are explicitly designed to keep children detained for longer periods to dissuade them from staying in the U.S.
Golden said she’s seen her 18-year-old clients become so desperate in adult detention that they’ve thought about returning to places where they fled extreme violence.
Rochelle Garza, a Texas-based immigration attorney, believes the government deliberately creates policies that will put more teenagers in prison, precisely because of its traumatic effects.
“Most kids I represented who turned 18, they cannot psychologically or emotionally handle being in prison,” she said. “So they end up requesting voluntary departure or bond removal from the country.”
Frank says her client Nadir’s life would be in danger if he returned to India. “He is certainly nervous about the future,” she said about the 17-year-old’s imminent birthday. “He’s worked very hard to get to where he is … he just wants to be safe.”