Happy 18th Birthday — Have Some Handcuffs

Turning 18 is a milestone in many cultures. Yet, there is nothing celebratory about the way the United States’ current Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are marking the occasion for unaccompanied minor immigrants.

ICE agents are shackling and relocating teens in shelters as soon as they turn 18, according to the Miami New Times. Since April, the report said, at least 14 teens had been taken from the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children on their birthdays — when they become legal adults.

“When they turn 18, it’s basically, ‘Happy birthday,’ and then they slap on handcuffs and take them off to adult detention centers,” Lisa Lehner, an attorney with the nonprofit Americans for Immigrant Justice, told the New Times.

The percentage of kids turning 18 in detention and being turned over to ICE has more than doubled since 2014, according to a report by news site Documented, cited on The Hill. In 2017, 2.4 percent of minor detainees “aged out” and were arrested by ICE, compared to 1 percent in 2014, according to Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) numbers quoted by Documented.

Americans for Immigrant Justice has filed suit, but Broward County isn’t the only site of these shelter arrests. Janet Gwilym, the managing attorney of Kids in Need of Defense, said ICE agents regularly show up at shelters at 11:30 p.m. on the eve of detainees’ 18th birthdays. At midnight, agents will shackle the now-adult detainees and take them to jail. 

“I believe it’s a psychological strategy they’re using to try to get them to just give up and go back back home, even if they know they’ll be killed if they go back,” Gwilym said.

There are dramatic differences between the environment in an adult facility and a temporary shelter such as Homestead, the activists noted in news articles. Plus, the government is obligated under what’s known as the Flores settlement to seek the least restrictive environment for minors, including alternate housing like placement with relatives or foster care — and to do it quickly. Instead, the new practice is handcuffs and quick shuttling to prison.

I never thought I’d be writing about immigration issues, but this is not the kind of birthday surprise we should keep quiet about.

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