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The National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC) filed a class action lawsuit today on behalf of immigrant teenagers who came to the United States alone and later were transferred from government shelters to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers when they turned 18. Many, including the lead plaintiffs, came to the U.S. seeking safety from dangerous situations at home and were awaiting reunification with family or sponsors.

“Teens who flee alone to seek safety in the United States need our protection and support, which should not suddenly disappear on their 18th birthdays,” said Kate Melloy Goettel of NIJC, who is co-counsel in the lawsuit. “Congress extended some protections afforded to unaccompanied immigrant children beyond when they turned 18. Imprisoning young men and women makes them vulnerable to abuse, and risks traumatizing those who already have fled persecution or survived perilous journeys.”

The Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2013 states that, when unaccompanied immigrant children in Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody turn 18, ICE “shall consider placement in the least restrictive setting available after taking into account the [individual’s] danger to self, danger to the community, and risk of flight.” Instead of automatically locking up these teens in adult prisons, the government must consider alternatives such as placement with sponsors or supervised group homes. But ICE has routinely and systemically failed to comply with the law. Furthermore, according to the lawsuit, the federal government has failed to enact any policies or procedures to ensure ICE agents comply with the 2013 laws.

An 18-year-old Guatemalan who is a lead plaintiff, Wilmer Garcia Ramirez, started working in coffee fields when he was six. Facing extreme poverty, he risked his life to come to the United States to provide a better life for his family. Since his 18th birthday last September, he has been locked up at an ICE adult detention center in Eloy, Arizona, where he waits for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to consider his application for immigration relief. A second lead plaintiff, Sulma Hernandez Alfaro, came to the United States to escape severe violence and abuse and has an asylum application pending before USCIS. On her 18th birthday, she was transferred from ORR custody to one of ICE’s adult detention centers in Texas.

“At bottom, this case is about the rule of law,” said Steve Patton of Kirkland & Ellis LLP, who is pro bono co-counsel for plaintiffs. “In 2013, Congress enacted a statute requiring that ICE ‘shall consider placement’ of unaccompanied immigrant teenagers like the plaintiffs here ‘in the least restrictive setting available,’ and that ICE ‘shall’ make available to them alternatives to adult detention. Our suit asks the courts to enforce these unambiguous statutory directives.”

Along with Melloy Goettel and Patton, Tia Trout-Perez and Anne Reser of Kirkland & Ellis LLP are co-counsel in the lawsuit.