DHS Sued For Info On Teens Transferred To ICE Custody At 18 - Law 360

Law360 (August 6, 2019, 3:06 PM EDT) -- A Miami-based legal aid organization has sued the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for failing to cough up documents about the procedures for children who “age out” of custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement and are transferred to ICE detention.

Americans for Immigrant Justice Inc. filed suit in Florida federal court Monday, claiming DHS and ICE failed to promptly respond to its Freedom of Information Act request for any communications and documents that relate to custody decisions by the Miami field office for unaccompanied minors who are transferred over to ICE at age 18.

AI Justice says at least 137 unaccompanied minors have aged out of the four ORR shelters in South Florida since April 2018, and all have been sent to ICE detention centers despite a federal statutory requirement that ICE consider less restrictive settings.

“Despite ICE’s purported efforts to implement the statute, according to AI Justice records, all of the children who age out of the four South Florida shelters have been detained on their 18th birthdays since AI Justice started monitoring the issue in April 2018,” the organization said in the complaint.

The legal aid organization submitted a FOIA request Jan. 9 asking for all guidelines, directives, rules, policies, procedures, memoranda, reports, correspondence and communications within the Miami field office’s jurisdiction after Oct. 1, 2018, regarding minors who aged out of ORR custody.

AI Justice also asked for any documents related to an Oct. 17, 2018, ICE policy that implemented a new system for documenting its decision process behind whether teenagers should be detained in adult facilities or released on their 18th birthdays.

The organization says it received an acknowledgment letter from the government agency on Feb. 14 invoking a 10-day extension to respond because of a high volume of FOIA requests.

After receiving no further response, AI Justice filed an administrative appeal April 4, according to the suit. ICE responded May 8 stating that the agency could not meet the statutorily required 20-30 day deadline for FOIA requests, and the appeal was remanded back to ICE’s FOIA office for processing, according to the suit.

AI Justice says it has received no response to its FOIA request since then.

Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, enacted in 2013, when a person in immigration custody turns 18 and is transferred to ICE, the agency “shall consider placement in the least restrictive setting available after taking into account the alien’s danger to self, danger to the community, and risk of flight.”

These 18-year-olds are eligible to participate in programs that are alternatives to detention, like placement with an individual or an organizational sponsor or in a supervised group home, according to the suit. But AI Justice says that has not happened for any unaccompanied minors in South Florida in the time that the group has been monitoring the situation.

A representative for ICE could not immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

AI Justice is represented by its attorneys Allison Norris and Lisa Lehner.

Counsel information for DHS and ICE was unavailable.

The case is Americans for Immigrant Justice Inc. v. U.S. Department of Homeland Security et al., case number 1:19-cv-23261, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

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AI Justice is an award-winning non-profit law and advocacy firm that protects and promotes the basic human rights of immigrants. In Florida and on a national level, we champion the rights of unaccompanied immigrant children; advocate for survivors of trafficking and domestic violence; serve as a watchdog on immigration detention practices and policies; and speak for immigrant groups who have particular and compelling claims to justice.