Federal Court Orders ICE to End Unlawful Detention of Immigrant Youth Who Turn 18 in Federal Custody

September 22, 2021

WASHINGTON—A district court judge in Washington, D.C., ruled Tuesday that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) broke the law by detaining unaccompanied children who turned 18 and “aged out” of Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) custody. The court ordered the agency to change its practices and procedures to avoid further unlawful detentions.

The ruling in Garcia Ramirez et al. v. ICE was the result of nearly three years of litigation in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by the National Immigrant Justice Center (NIJC), Kirkland & Ellis LLP, and the American Immigration Council.

The court pointed to ICE’s “pervasive violations” of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, which requires the agency to prioritize placing children in the “least restrictive setting.” When an unaccompanied immigrant child reached their 18th birthday in ORR custody, ICE would routinely arrest them, handcuff them, and transport them to immigration detention centers across the United States. In its opinion, the court explained that its decision to grant injunctive relief was in part based on ICE’s failure to comply with the court’s orders throughout the life of the case, constituting “a pattern of agency recalcitrance and resistance to the fulfillment of its legal duties.”

The five-year permanent injunction requires ICE to:

  • Comply substantively with federal law requiring ICE to consider placing unaccompanied immigrant children in settings less restrictive than federal custody
  • Re-train its officers and revamp its policies and handbook on how to make custody determinations when youth in ORR custody turn 18
  • Document its custody decisions
  • Provide monthly reports and documentation to class counsel

One of the lead plaintiffs in the case, Sulma Hernandez Alfaro, fled to the United States as a minor to seek asylum and was transferred from ORR custody to ICE detention when she turned 18, even though a group shelter was willing to accept her. Ms. Alfaro responded to the court’s decision: “Es la mejor decision que se ha tomado despues de tanta espera, gracias Dios por bendecir a los jovenes que cumplen 18 años, que esta noticia sea su major regalo, gracias a los abogados que lucharon por la libertad y una oportunidad para cada joven. (“It's the best decision that's been made after so much waiting. Thank God for blessing all the young people who are turning 18; I hope this news is their best present. Thanks to the lawyers that fought for freedom and opportunities for each young person.”)

Class counsel also responded to the court’s ruling:

Kate Melloy Goettel, Legal Director of Litigation, American Immigration Council:  “No child should be locked up by ICE on their 18th birthday. ICE’s stubborn refusal to follow our immigration laws designed to protect immigrant teenagers, has resulted in the unnecessary and unlawful detention of thousands of vulnerable teenagers. The Court’s order establishes a much-needed accountability for an agency that operates with a ‘lock-them-up’ ethos. We hope this order marks a change in the agency’s policies, practice, and culture with respect to immigrant youth.”

Steve Patton, Kirkland & Ellis, lead counsel for the class: ”When we filed this suit in 2018, up to 80 percent of these young people were being illegally detained. Currently, more than 99 percent of them are being released to family members and other sponsors.  We are extremely pleased with the court’s ruling and deeply appreciative that these young people will no longer be detained in violation of federal law.”

Mark Fleming, associate director of litigation, National Immigrant Justice Center: “We’re grateful that the court recognized ICE’s failure to follow the law and its pattern of impunity, which has characterized almost every aspect of the agency’s operations over the past two decades but has been particularly harmful for young immigrants who have found themselves in adult detention centers on their 18th birthdays because immigration officers couldn’t be bothered to follow the proper steps to identify more appropriate and less restrictive housing. The changes laid out in the court’s order will help hold the U.S. government accountable to treat immigrant youth with the dignity and care that they deserve.” 

Read the decision:


For more information, contact:

Maria Frausto, American Immigration Council, at [email protected] or 202-507-7526; Tara Tidwell, NIJC, at [email protected] or 312-833-2967.

Media Contact

Elyssa Pachico
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