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The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia is hearing opening testimony today in a nationwide class action lawsuit challenging the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) practice of transferring unaccompanied immigrant children who reach their 18th birthdays to adult ICE detention facilities — federal prisons and county jails — without considering less restrictive placements.

Top officials from ICE’s Juvenile Family and Residential Management Unit will testify the first two days of trial, and the case’s two named plaintiffs will testify the third day. The trial in the case known as Garcia Ramirez v. ICE is expected to last up to three weeks.

“ICE has a legal duty to vulnerable children who are deemed unaccompanied under our laws to find a placement other than jail for them when they turn 18," said Kate Melloy Goettel, associate director of litigation for the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC). “Yet, time and again, they routinely lock up and further traumatize teenagers who have come to the U.S. seeking safety.”

Attorneys from NIJC and Kirkland & Ellis LLP have litigated the lawsuit since March 2018. The nationwide class represents former unaccompanied children who were, are, or will be detained by ICE after being transferred from the custody of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) because they have turned 18 years old, and for whom ICE did not consider placement in the least restrictive setting available, including alternatives to detention programs as required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).

“We are looking forward to presenting the evidence we have gathered over the past 18 months, which shows that ICE has failed to comply with an unambiguous statute that requires it to consider placement of these teenagers in ‘the least restrictive setting available’ and to provide meaningful alternatives to adult detention,” said Stephen Patton, a Kirkland lawyer who is leading the litigation. “The result is that hundreds of already traumatized and vulnerable youth are being unlawfully detained in jails and other adult detention facilities across the country.”

Wilmer Garcia Ramirez, the lead plaintiff in the case, fled to the United States alone in 2017 when he was 17 years old to escape forced labor. In the United States he was placed into ORR custody, where he applied for a special visa which is granted to immigrant children who demonstrate that it is not in their best interests to return to their home country and parents because of abuse, abandonment or neglect. Later that year, when Wilmer turned 18, ICE took him into custody and sent him to the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona for eight months, even though a family friend was willing to sponsor him if he were released.