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Groups Demand the Biden Administration End ICE Detention of Migrant Youth

Advocates, legal experts and community organizations are outraged that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has entered into a new contract allowing for the long-term detention of migrant teenagers. The contract, signed just a month into the Biden administration, allows ICE to continue the practice of holding migrant youth — whom ICE has detained after taking them from the care of their parents or legal guardians — in juvenile jails. This practice flies in the face of commitments made by the Biden Administration to protect migrant youth and reflects a racist vilification of migrant children that was common during the Trump administration. The undersigned organizations call on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to urgently release any youth from ICE detention, terminate all detention agreements with juvenile facilities, and halt any plans for future ICE detention of migrant youth.      

The February contract is a year-long agreement between ICE and the Northwestern Regional Juvenile Detention Center (NJRDC) in Winchester, Virginia. ICE appears to have entered into the contract without any meaningful consultation with the community, advocates, or legal service providers. Even more concerning, the contract was signed shortly after county judges decided on February 5, 2021 for the government of Cowlitz County, Washington, to terminate their controversial contract with ICE to detain children in the local juvenile jail. For months, local advocates had called for the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center to end its contract with ICE over concerns for youth and due to violations of international human rights standards. Prior to the Winchester City Agreement, the Cowlitz facility was the only facility in the country where ICE actively detained children (apart from family detention centers and hotels) during this fiscal year. Another juvenile jail in Oregon ended its contract to detain youth for ICE in 2020, also in response to community pressure.

We are outraged that the Biden administration is re-committing to the detention of youth by ICE, a practice roundly condemned by medical experts and human rights advocates. In accordance with internationally accepted rights of the child, migrant and refugee children should be treated with dignity and respect and should not be exposed to conditions that may harm or traumatize them. However the U.S. government fails to guarantee the safety of children under their custody, as demonstrated with the deaths of five Indigenous Maya children from 2018-2019. ICE detention of youths tears children away from their caregivers, obstructs access to legal services, a process worsened for Indigenous children and youth who do not receive Indigenous language services. Criminalizing and incarcerating any children is inhumane; youth belong in their communities and deserve opportunities to grow and be cared for, not punished, isolated and traumatized in prisons. 

New documents, obtained by the Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) in response to open records requests, include “talking points” prepared by ICE to sell the idea of detaining youth in the Winchester facility. The document explains that ICE was looking for a new facility to jail children on the East Coast, and falsely claims that the new facility would be one of three, even though Cowlitz was the only one actively holding children long term at the time. It also disturbingly profiles the types of cases in which children are subject to ICE detention in juvenile facilities. The talking point document reflects a gut-wrenching racial animus towards migrant children, continuing the dehumanizing rhetoric common to the Trump administration. Such talking points also resemble the racist rhetoric of the 1990s, when political figures demonized Black communities by characterizing children as less than human, and undeserving of empathy. Virginia community groups are alarmed that ICE’s detention of children is part of a violent trend of police targeting of migrant youth and reliance on discriminatory “gang” prioritization in the region. It is past time to treat migrant children as children first and foremost; the threat to our collective health and safety is ICE — not children. 

The undersigned organizations call for an immediate end to ICE contracts to detain migrant youth. ICE, along with its public and private contractors, has a dark history of detaining primarily Black, Brown, and Indigenous families and children and exposing them to life-long harms, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. This latest secretive ICE agreement with the Virginia juvenile facility further illustrates that ICE should not be in the business of jailing anyone. We urge this administration to stop the practice of detaining migrant youth, and immediately terminate ICE detention contracts as an integral step towards phasing out of the immigration detention system altogether. 


Endorsing Organizations 

Advancement Project National Office

DC Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES)

DC Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC)

CASA de Virginia

Charlottesville-area Immigrant Resource and Advocacy Coalition (CIRAC) 

Congregation Action Network (CAN)

Cville Immigrant Freedom Fund (CIFF)

Detention Watch Network (DWN)

Defund NoVa Police Coalition 

Doctors for Camp Closure

Free Them All VA 

International Mayan League 

Justice for Muslims Collective 

La ColectiVA

Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC)

Maryland Against ICE Detention

Maryland Legislative Coalition

NAKASEC Virginia

National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild 

National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC)

New Virginia Majority

Northern Virginia DSA

Resources for Immigrant Support and Empowerment (RISE Coalition of Western MD)

Sanctuary DMV 

Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) Northern Virginia

Takoma Park Mobilization - Equal Justice Committee

Tenants and Workers United 

Virginia Student Power Network