STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
When migrant children cross the border without their parents, they are sent to federal shelters. Next, caseworkers are supposed to find them good homes, but when they turn 18, everything changes. In most cases, they're handcuffed and locked in an adult detention facility. NPR's John Burnett reports the practice is prompting lawsuits.
JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Last spring, a 17-year-old girl named Lisseth made the treacherous journey from El Salvador to the Texas border and asked for asylum. She says she fled sexual predators in her hometown. As an unaccompanied minor, she was sent to the nation's largest federal youth shelter, called Homestead, near Miami. She described life there as regimented and dehumanizing.
LISSETH: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: But she remained optimistic. Later, she was transferred to a different youth shelter where she says kids were happier. Then on the morning of Lisseth's 18th birthday, September 23, two uniformed immigration agents showed up at the shelter. They put on ankle chains and drove her across town to a frigid holding cell. Thus began her new status as an adult detainee in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
LISSETH: (Through interpreter) You feel horrible. Who would wish that on anybody on their birthday? You feel like a criminal, handcuffed that way. No one tells you that on your birthday, not only would you not get to celebrate, on the contrary, two strangers are going to take you in handcuffs in a van to a detention cell that is freezing. The truth is I'm not a criminal. I've never been one, and I never will be one.
BURNETT: Lisseth spent the next 2 1/2 months confined in the Broward Transitional Center. Gone were the classrooms, soccer games and snacks between meals.
LISSETH: (Through interpreter) The law says you're an adult, but you're not, psychologically and physically. How is my brain supposed to change to an adult overnight?
BURNETT: A pro bono attorney stepped in to help and Lisseth was able to find a sponsor, a family friend, with whom she now lives in Texas. She's waiting for her asylum case to be heard in immigration court. Her lawyer asked not to use her surname for fear it would hurt her case. Immigration attorneys are trying to outlaw what happened to Lisseth.
LISA LEHNER: So they're going from - I mean, it's not great, but it's a center where the government has facilities for children. They have education. They're with other children. And all of a sudden, you know, on their 18th birthday, it all changes.
BURNETT: Lisa Lehner is director of litigation at Americans for Immigrant Justice in Miami. She's filed 20 lawsuits to free 18-year-olds who were taken from shelters and detained. In every case, ICE released the young adult, but the birthday arrests keep happening all across the country.
LEHNER: I'm concerned with two things - first of all, that our government is not following the law when it comes to dealing with children; and second of all, the traumatic effect that this is happening on these kids.
BURNETT: Child shelters like Homestead cannot statutorily house immigrants once they turn 18, but Congress enacted a law several years ago that instructs ICE to put these teenagers in, quote, "the least restrictive setting available" and to look for alternatives to detention. Typically that means finding a sponsor or a group home for them. Again, Lisa Lehner...
LEHNER: What ICE is doing is not according to congressional intent.
BURNETT: ICE maintains that it is following the law. The agency says it treats every child who ages out of the system on a case-by-case basis, looking for least restrictive setting. But ICE adds that young adults can be kept in detention if they're a danger to themselves or the community or if they're a flight risk. And once they're placed in ICE lockups, the teenagers can still get help finding a sponsor from deportation officers. But that process can drag out.
Meantime, some 18-year-olds are deported, while others give up and accept voluntary departure. The National Immigrant Justice Center has filed a nationwide class-action lawsuit to block ICE from jailing immigrants who age out. Neha Desai is a lawyer who's been granted access to migrant children to monitor their welfare. She's not involved with the class-action.
NEHA DESAI: It's something that's of grave concern to us. There have been a significant number of children that have aged out that were ready to be reunified with their sponsors.
BURNETT: Government data show that in two-thirds of 1,500 cases from 2016 to 2018, migrant children were put into detention when they turned 18. ICE birthday arrests have created such concern at the Homestead shelter in South Florida, that the private contractor who operates the facility created a special age-out case management unit.
During a recent tour, an employee told NPR that caseworkers double down to find adult sponsors for youngsters about to turn 18 so they're not led away in handcuffs. As for Lisseth, if a judge allows her to stay in the U.S. - which is a longshot - she has a dream.
LISSETH: (Speaking Spanish).
BURNETT: She wants to go to college and get a law degree and become an immigration attorney so she can help young immigrants avoid what happened to her.
John Burnett, NPR News.
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