At least five teenagers who were separated from their parents at the US–Mexico border by the Trump administration were taken from children’s shelters and sent to jail-like ICE facilities for adults shortly after turning 18, according to public records obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Two teens were sent to the Port Isabel Service Processing Center in Los Fresnos, Texas, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. Three were sent to a detention facility in Houston. The records didn't provide any additional information on who they were or what happened to the teens after they were sent to ICE detention.
While some immigrant children who arrive without a parent or legal guardian end up being sent to ICE detention facilities if they age out of the shelters for minors run by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, these five teens did not come to the US alone. Under the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policy, immigrants caught crossing the border were charged with illegal entry; if they were traveling with kids, they were separated while the adults faced the charges in federal court. The 3,913 children were taken from their families, listed as unaccompanied minors, and sent to HHS custody. Ultimately, in the cases of these five teenagers, they were then sent to ICE detention.
These five cases stand out because of the added trauma they likely experienced after being separated from their parents, said Kate Melloy Goettel, legal director of litigation at the American Immigration Council.
"Then to have this traumatic experience of being essentially arrested by ICE and then put in an orange jumpsuit in a detention facility or jail — talk about layers of trauma," Melloy Goettel told BuzzFeed News. "It wasn't just that single traumatic act of family separation; there were so many ripple effects that came after it, and this is one of them."
BuzzFeed News’ discovery of the five teens’ cases comes as the Biden administration tries to undo some of the harm caused by the Trump White House when it separated thousands of children from their parents at the border. As part of those efforts, Biden created a family reunification task force, charged with identifying children who were separated during the Trump administration and attempting to reunite them with their parents. Some of these separated families in recent months have been allowed to reunite in the US under humanitarian parole, which lasts three years, and have been given access to mental health services. They're also eligible for work authorization.
The Department of Homeland Security said children who were separated under the zero-tolerance policy and aged out of shelters for unaccompanied minors could request humanitarian parole to come back to the US if they were deported; their parents and immediate household members are also allowed to do so. For those still in the US, the task force is working on a system that would provide access to parole in place for the same three-year period.
"These individuals are considered to be traumatized and the Task Force is providing reunification and other support services," DHS said in a statement.
Melloy Goettel, who was one of the attorneys who filed a case against the US in 2018 for its practice of sending teens to ICE custody when they aged out of children’s shelters, said she's skeptical that only five teenagers separated from their families under zero tolerance were later sent to ICE detention centers. The lawsuit made clear the government kept poor records, she said.
"We learned that between 2016 and 2018 about one-third of age-outs were not tracked," Melloy Goettel said. "Meaning there is no record of what happened after they aged out of ORR custody; we don't know whether they were sent to ICE custody or released to a sponsor."
Court documents show that in June 2018, during the height of the Trump administration's family separations, 154 immigrant children in ORR custody were reported to have turned 18, and roughly 128 of those teens were sent to ICE detention.
In addition to the five teens who were sent to ICE detention, five others who aged out of ORR's shelters were not, according to records obtained by BuzzFeed News. Two were released on bond, one on their own, and two have "departure" listed as the reason for their release. The two released on "departure" appear to have been deported to Guatemala.
DHS's family reunification task force has also said the government's poor record-keeping of who was separated made their efforts more difficult.
A DHS spokesperson said that when unaccompanied children turn 18 and are still in the care of ORR, federal law requires they be transferred to ICE to determine whether they belong in custody. Under the law, ICE also has to consider placing the 18-year-old in the least restrictive setting, which could mean a sponsor, shelter, or releasing them on their own.
In 2018, however, the government was taken to court by immigrant teenagers over the practice, with attorneys including Melloy Goettel accusing immigration authorities of not placing them in the least restrictive setting available — in violation, they said, of a provision of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Attorneys representing the teens said ICE automatically placed many immigrants who aged out of the shelters into adult detention without even considering putting them in a less restrictive setting.
Last summer, a judge agreed with the immigrant children and found that ICE officers frequently failed to inquire about other options for teenagers who age out of ORR custody. US District Judge Rudolph Contreras said that not only did ICE not train its employees on proper decision-making for these cases, but it gave officers guidance that was contrary to what the law requires them to do. This left the choice about whether to even consider placing the teens somewhere other than adult detention up to ICE officers.
"Many officers choose not to take these steps, with the result that in many of ICE’s largest field offices, age-outs are detained nearly automatically," Contreras said. "In the most extreme cases, this means that ICE field officers refuse to release age-outs to organizational sponsors who have said they would be happy to take them in or to eighteen-year-olds’ own parents living in the United States."
Attorneys for the teens and the government are still in court fighting over how to create a better system for teens who age out of ORR's shelters.
Dr. Julie Linton, cochair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Immigrant Child and Family Health, said being sent from a shelter to an adult ICE facility can be extremely traumatizing and detrimental to a teenager's health.
"Detention facilities under the jurisdiction of ICE are known to be traumatic for people of any age, but it can be particularly traumatic to an 18-year-old," Linton told BuzzFeed News. “There is no arbitrary age by which a child suddenly becomes an adult.”
There's no difference between someone who is 18 and someone who is 17 years and 364 days old, Linton said, adding that the human brain is still developing up until a person’s mid-20s.
Coming face-to-face with the US immigration system can be severely painful and builds on trauma that children experience before even reaching the border, Linton said. Children leaving their countries to head to the US have likely seen or experienced trauma back home, she said, and are further exposed to suffering on the journey to the border.
"Then they're retraumatized again, beginning with conditions in CBP and then again in the case of separated kids, which was perhaps the most egregious thing that has ever occurred in my lifetime," Linton told BuzzFeed News. "For the children who were then sent to adult detention facilities as a final trauma, the compounding trauma is perhaps the greatest risk for long-term mental health risks in a child."
Linton said in the short term, children traumatized by detention can experience appetite loss, changes in sleep, and even bed-wetting. Children can become withdrawn or regress in their ability to speak as well as develop depression and anxiety. One study has shown a link between adverse childhood experiences and long-term health problems, such as cancer, heart disease, and liver disease, she said.
"It's certainly not difficult to surmise that being placed in an adult detention facility as an 18-year-old would be traumatic," Linton said. "Many of us in the immigration policy space have made a very clear connection between the [adverse childhood experiences study] and immigration detention."