Early one morning in February 2018, an undocumented immigrant named Ana was told to report to a government office within the shelter where she was being housed. A month earlier, she had fled to the United States from Guatemala with her 2-year-old son after gang members threatened to kill her. Because she was 17, immigration officials placed her and her son in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which sent them to a shelter in New York. On this day—her 18th birthday—the staff instructed her to go to the office at 5 a.m. without her son. When she arrived, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers were waiting. They arrested Ana and transferred her to New Jersey’s Bergen County Jail. She was not allowed to say goodbye to her son.
What ICE did to Ana wasn’t just cruel. It was illegal. Under a federal law, the agency is required to place immigrants like Ana—undocumented minors who turn 18 in federal custody—in the “least restrictive setting available.” But under Donald Trump, ICE has ignored this rule, ripping immigrants out of shelters on their 18th birthdays and locking them in detention facilities with adults. Despite a raft of lawsuits challenging its actions, ICE continues to assert broad authority to imprison these teenagers. Its refusal to comply with the law is a powerful argument against calls to reform ICE instead of abolishing it.
In 2013, Congress enacted an amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA) that should clearly protect immigrants like Ana from unnecessary incarceration. The statute was designed to safeguard unaccompanied immigrant children who turn 18 in ORR custody. Under the law, ICE must “consider placement in the least restrictive setting available” so long as these teenagers are not a risk to themselves or the community, or a flight risk. These individuals “shall be eligible to participate in alternative to detention programs,” such as placement “with an individual or an organizational sponsor, or in a supervised group home.”