U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are continuing to arrest teenagers from shelters in New York and transfer them to immigration detention during the coronavirus pandemic, Documented has learned.
Jorge, who asked to be referred to only by his first name for fear of reprisal, was arrested by ICE on his 18th birthday from a shelter in Westchester, New York on March 18. He was then transferred to the Orange County Correctional Facility, according to attorneys at the Brooklyn Defender Services.
Upon arrival, he was placed in a cell for 23 hours per day for 14 days, according to Kessler.
“There is absolutely no justification for locking up an 18-year-old on his birthday for two weeks in conditions identical to solitary confinement,” said Bridget Kessler, a supervising attorney at Brooklyn Defender Services. “I believe he was provided no reading material, nothing to pass the time. Just sitting by himself in a cell, let out only once a day.”
ICE is currently facing intense scrutiny due to fears that the coronavirus will spread rapidly throughout its detention facilities with dire consequences. It has announced that 37 detainees nationwide have tested positive for coronavirus, however, Documented confirmed a further four detainees had tested positive at the Buffalo Federal Detention Facility in Batavia, New York.
The facility that Jorge was staying in prior to his arrest was a shelter contracted by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which houses children who crossed the border alone or who have been separated from the adults they crossed with. In New York state, many of these are foster care homes who care for American citizen children as well. Jorge, originally from Guatemala, crossed the U.S. border into Arizona in January and then was placed in ORR custody, according to Kessler.
ICE told Documented in a statement that it is custom for the agency to arrest a minor when they turn 18 as they are no longer considered minors and are subject to be turned over to the agency
“ICE makes custody determinations every day on a case-by-case basis, in accordance with U.S. law and Department of Homeland Security policy, considering the merits and factors of each case while adhering to current agency priorities, guidelines and legal mandates,” the agency said.
ICE arrests of teenagers from ORR shelters on their 18th birthday are common but the agency has some discretion over who is transferred to detention. According to Anthony Enriquez, director of the unaccompanied minors program at Catholic Charities, a juvenile coordinator within ICE makes a determination on which children will be transferred to jail. Enriquez explained that ICE should consider the “least restrictive settings” for 18-year-olds who age out of ORR care. They may be transferred to a group home for example.
ORR typically only holds children at shelters until they can be released to a sponsor, usually, a relative in the U.S. Jorge has an aunt living in the U.S. who was eager to sponsor him, Kessler said, but she was waiting on his release when she was notified on his 18th birthday that he had been transferred to a jail.
ORR has suffered from its own outbreak of coronavirus cases. It announced on Thursday that six children in three different shelters in New York have tested positive for the virus. Documented previously reported that at least one child at Children’s Village was among those who have tested positive. For a brief period of time, ORR blocked all children from being released from its custody to sponsors due to fears of spreading the virus further. But it continued to allow children to be transferred to ICE.
On Jorge’s 18th birthday, March 18, ICE also issued new guidance on how it would carry out enforcement during the coronavirus pandemic, where all levels of government have instructed people to limit physical interactions. ICE said it will focus enforcement on “public-safety risks and individuals subject to mandatory detention based on criminal grounds.”
Despite this, Jorge was still arrested and transferred to the Orange County Correctional Facility where he is currently detained. He told his attorney that there is widespread fear that there will be an outbreak of the virus there.
“This is taking them from a foster home to a prison where there has been a record outbreak,” Enriquez said. “We don’t think that aging out should be a death sentence.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the fact that Jorge’s aunt does not live in the New York area, as was previously stated. We apologize for this error.