Lawyers: Immigrant kids’ detention is prolonged, unconstitutional

Migrant teens walk in a line at a shelter for unaccompanied children, on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (Brynn Anderson/AP Photo)

Migrant teens walk in a line at a shelter for unaccompanied children, on Monday, Dec. 10, 2018. (Brynn Anderson/AP Photo)

Immigrant advocates are suing the U.S. government, claiming it is detaining immigrant children too long and improperly refusing to release them to relatives.

A federal lawsuit filed last year in Alexandria, Virginia, was expanded Friday to propose including the cases of more than 10,000 children, some housed in Camden, New Jersey and Allentown, Pennsylvania, shelters.

Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the Immigrant Advocacy Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, said the Department of Health and Human Services has been slow to release immigrant children to sponsors in the U.S. What’s more, he said, an agreement to share sponsors’ information with deportation officers has deterred some from offering to take the minors.

“Children belong in homes with families, not warehoused in government detention centers,” he said in a statement.

In other cases, according to court documents, sharing that information has led to the arrest and deportation of family members. They give the example of a minor from Guatemala identified as E.A.X., whose father submitted fingerprints as a part of the process to take custody of his son. Three days later, the father was pulled over by ICE officers on his way to work and “quickly deported,” alleges the suit.

Attorneys draw support for their arguments from a 2017 draft memo, leaked to the office of Oregon U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, which released it last week. In the memo, federal officials suggested sharing information about sponsors with ICE in addition to separating families at the U.S. southern border.

“This would result in a deterrent impact on ‘sponsors’ who may be involved in smuggling children into the United States,” states the memo.

Detaining children to deter future immigration is “unconstitutional,” said Sandoval-Moshenberg in an interview.

If successful, the lawsuit would end the practice of sharing sponsors’ information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and speed up the process of unifying kids with family members. A hearing is set for Feb. 15 to determine if the new bounds of the class action suit will be certified.

A spokeswoman for the DHHS said the agency, which oversees the care and custody of immigrant children stopped on the border, doesn’t comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for KidsPeace, a shelter care organization in the Lehigh Valley with a contract to house minor immigrants, referred questions to DHHS.

The filing on behalf of children and their sponsors comes shortly after a detention camp housing migrant teenagers in Texas was shuttered amid a partial government shutdown that has dragged on more than a month over the Trump administration’s demand for a border wall.

Immigrant children who are stopped on the border alone are placed in the custody of DHHS until they are released to screened sponsors in the U.S. About 50,000 unaccompanied immigrant children were caught on the southwest border during the last fiscal year, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Kayla Vazquez, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said she has been trying to get her husband’s 17-year-old cousin released from federal custody since immigration authorities stopped him on the U.S.-Mexico border in August.

Vazquez said she has been repeatedly asked for documents from social workers that her family has already supplied to sponsor the teen. She fears the U.S. government is stalling until he turns 18 and can be transferred to an adult detention facility.

“I feel like they’re playing a game and they’re just keeping him there to have the family suffer,” she told reporters on a conference call.

The Associated Press and WHYY’s Laura Benshoff contributed to this report.

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