Teenagers in ICE detention are worried about COVID-19

Alone in Pacific Northwest facilities, undocumented youth are in precarious situations, advocates say.

 

This story was originally published by Crosscut and is reproduced here with permission. 

In November of last year, a 16-year-old girl had just finished rehabilitation and was preparing to go home. 

The teen, whose lawyer asked that she remain anonymous because of her pending immigration case, had done so well in the program that she had been released two months early. She also managed to earn her GED, attend church regularly and mentor others.  

But before she could reunite with her family, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) picked her up from the rehab center in Texas and sent her across the country. She landed at the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center in Longview, about two hours south of Seattle.   

Her mother, who works at McDonald’s, said she did not know where ICE had taken her daughter until the next day, when her child called her from the facility. There was no attempt by ICE to inform her of her daughter’s whereabouts, she said. 

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” her mother said in a recent interview in Spanish, her voice shaking. “She’s a good girl, a good person, very intelligent.” 

“She’s strong,” her mother continued. But she “isn’t at fault for arriving in the U.S. when she was a child.”

“We came here to give her a better future,” she added. My daughter “just wants an opportunity.” 

While the plight of adults and migrant children in federal custody has received some attention, undocumented teenagers with troubled pasts and held by ICE in secretive facilities have largely been obscured from view. 

Now, with COVID-19 spreading and a recent court ruling related to detention during the pandemic, attorneys and immigrant rights advocates want the public, as well as political leaders, to be aware of the precarious situation of undocumented youth being held by ICE.

Washington state and Oregon are home to the only two facilities in the country that house troubled youth for ICE. In addition to the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center (in Longview, Washington, above), the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility, or NORCOR, in The Dalles also detains teenagers for ICE.

Washington state and Oregon are home to the only two facilities in the country that house troubled youth for ICE. In addition to the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center, the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility, or NORCOR, in The Dalles also detains teenagers for ICE. 

Samantha Ratcliffe, an immigration attorney with the Metropolitan Public Defender in Portland, represents undocumented teenagers in Cowlitz County. Over this past year, she has helped about eight youth detained at the jail. Most are from Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador, she said. Two of the children currently housed there have already served time for criminal convictions, and one was never charged with a crime.   

Because they are often picked up in their late teens, many of the children held by ICE are detained so long that they age out of the juvenile facilities. They are then transferred to an adult detention center, such as the ICE Processing Center in Tacoma, according to Ratcliffe. 

Last week, U.S. District Judge Dolly M. Gee in Los Angeles implored ICE to uphold the 1997 Flores Agreement during the coronavirus pandemic. The court settlement requires the federal government to hold children in safe, and the “least restrictive conditions,” possible. It also demands that children be released in a timely manner. The agreement pertains to the thousands of children in shelters operated by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and the country’s three family ICE detention facilities. Dozens of children at these facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, according to news reports.

Gee did not address the fate of children with criminal backgrounds detained by ICE, but referred their cases to a juvenile coordinator, said Monica Julian, one of the attorneys involved in the case. 

In the same week as the court order, a report from the University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the Lewis & Clark Law School noted that many of the children who have been detained at the facilities in the Pacific Northwest were arrested on the East Coast in anti-gang operations, which targeted the MS-13 criminal gang in 2017 and 2018. But while some children have committed serious, even violent, crimes, advocates say other teenagers have simply been swept up by overzealous ICE operations. The university researchers estimate the facilities receive approximately $170 per day for every child incarcerated for ICE. 

Attorneys say ICE has vaguely noted that the children at the Cowlitz County facility and NORCOR cannot be released because of their criminal histories. But advocates argue the federal agency has contradicted itself by also saying the youth pose no risk to themselves or others.

In a statement responding to questions about the children housed in the facilities, an ICE official said the federal government has “these contracts available in the rare case the agency needs to hold a criminal juvenile as they wait their immigration proceedings or removal because they present a public safety or national security threat — including those with charges for murder or child molestation.”

“It would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous for the agency to allow these individuals to remain out of custody with a guardian,” the agency said. 

Although none of the teens have tested positive for COVID-19, concerns over the spread of the virus at the Cowlitz County facility have been serious enough that all but one child with U.S. citizenship status has been released, though officials have refused to free the undocumented youth. Altogether, attorneys say, four children remain in the facility. 

NORCOR also maintains no one at the juvenile facility has tested positive for the coronavirus. Jeff Justesen, detention manager of the juvenile detention facility, explained that the youth there had not been tested because they had yet to show symptoms of the virus. 

The facility has been controversial in the past. A 2017 investigation found that conditions at the facility were “harsher and more restrictive” than adult jail and that children were often kept in solitary confinement.  

One medical expert, Dr. Julie DeAun Graves, said “postponing the release of children in facilities with known COVID-19 exposure” was like “leaving them in a burning house.”

Experts say the risks for youth in congregate settings are similar to any incarcerated adult living through the COVID-19 pandemic: unprotected staff who come and go and potentially expose them to the virus and the agonizing by and over loved ones on the outside.

In court records from the Los Angeles case, one medical expert, Dr. Julie DeAun Graves, said “postponing the release of children in facilities with known COVID-19 exposure” was like “leaving them in a burning house.”

The Cowlitz County Youth Services Center is is closed to detention visitation because of the pandemic. Children there said they no longer have access to a teacher and they aren’t allowed outside to exercise or for fresh air.

The Texas teen at the Cowlitz County facility, who like her mother is originally from Mexico, is the only female being held at that facility, according to her testimony as documented in court records.  

She told an attorney that young women from Washington state have been removed from the facility and that she has been there alone for more than a month.

“Before the pandemic, I had appointments with the counselor every other week, and I was in a support group for girls every week. All of that stopped because of the pandemic,” she said.

Children at the Cowlitz County detention center also told the attorney that they no longer have access to a teacher, but solely a guard who often stays within an arm’s length. They’re not allowed outside to exercise or get fresh air, and their families and attorneys can no longer visit.

“Sometimes I play cards with the guards; some use disinfectant or wash their hands first and some don’t,” said the Texas teen. “They told me once or twice that we need to stay 6 feet apart but they don’t stay 6 feet from me, and they sometimes joke about that rule.”

“She cries more and often has no appetite because she is sad about not being able to have any visits with us,” the mother told an attorney, according to court records.  

In a phone interview, the mother said her other daughter, a 13-year-old, cries every time she hears her sister’s voice.

“It’s been a very long time that she’s been gone and that I haven’t seen her,” the mother said.

Lilly Fowler is a reporter at Crosscut. She focuses on immigration and religion, among other issues. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -