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Lawsuit challenges 'jail-like' detention of migrant children

"We think they have due process rights that are being violated by the Trump administration’s actions," an attorney said.
Image: The US Department of Health and Human Se
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the agency of which the Office of Refugee Resettlement is a part, building is shown on July 21, 2007, in Washington.Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images file

Lawyers on behalf of several immigrant and asylum-seeking children filed a federal lawsuit in California on Friday that alleges they are being unconstitutionally detained in inhumane and cruel conditions, and that the government is delaying or refusing to release the minors to family members.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles seeks class action status, and it seeks to block the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) and its umbrella agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, from placing the children in detention, where the complaint alleges they have suffered physical and emotional trauma.

"ORR confines children to jail-like settings without affording them a meaningful or timely opportunity to be heard regarding the reasons for such placement," the complaint reads.

The suit was filed on behalf of five minors who range in age from 12 to 17 and hail from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and who are considered unaccompanied. They have been in detention for up to a year and a half and as a result have suffered from serious psychological trauma, anxiety and depression, according to the suit.

"A number of the children have been orphaned and come here by themselves and all of the children have family here they hope to one day be reunited with," said Leecia Welch, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. "Each story is different but they are all pretty horrific."

Welch and other advocates, including the University of California, Davis, School of Law Immigration Law Clinic; The UC Davis Civil Rights Clinic; and the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law are representing the children.

The complaint alleges that the government has unnecessarily prolonged the children's detention on the grounds that their parents or available custodians are unfit but does not give them a meaningful chance to contest that determination, in violation of their Fifth Amendment due process rights. They also allege the restrictive detention schemes violate the freedom to associate under the First Amendment.

The suit says that children held in government custody apart from their primary caregivers for long periods can cause "suffer profound and long-lasting injury."

The lawsuit also argues that the Trump administration's child detentions at the border run afoul of the Flores Settlement Agreement, a 1997 agreement governing the treatment of migrant children. The agreement requires agencies release children to a relative, family or friend whenever possible and also mandates that children be detained in the least restrictive environment possible.

The suit filed Friday also alleges that the Office of Refugee Resettlement has transferred the children to psychiatric facilities without their permission, and that the children have been given powerful psychotropic medications, sometimes against their will and without the consent of their families or a court of law.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not reply to a request for comment late Friday afternoon.

Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California, Davis, School of Law, who is representing the children, said in her 20 years of practice she had never seen worse conditions for minors.

"The conditions are as bad as we've seen in Guantanamo," she said, noting that many of the children detained have been forcibly sedated. "It's outrageous what's happening."

One of the children in the lawsuit, a 16-year-old Honduran girl who is partially deaf, arrived to the U.S-Mexican border in August of 2017 with her older sister and her nephew and was separated from them and placed in custody at a Texas shelter, according to the complaint.

The suit says the girl was so traumatized by the separation that she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, that the child's sister applied to become her custodian but that ORR placed "placed arbitrary, expensive and excessive conditions" on her release, like allegedly requiring that the sister move into a new house with a separate bedroom for the girl, and that the sister prove she can pay over $500 per month for the girl's medical care.

The girl is still in government custody after nearly 11 months, according to the suit.

"We think they have due process rights that are being violated by the Trump administration’s actions," Welch said.