Human rights groups file federal lawsuit for unaccompanied child wrongfully held in ICE detention

Winnfield, LA, February 26, 2024 – Earlier this month, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR), the National Immigration Project (NIPNLG), and the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana (ACLU-LA) filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a 17-year-old unaccompanied child, I.J., who has been unlawfully held for months in a Louisiana ICE detention facility for adults. The lawsuit details I.J.’s abysmal treatment at the hands of immigration officials and also highlights an alarming trend of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents coercing unaccompanied children into false confessions that they are over 18.

Abandoned by his parents as a young boy and forced to flee persecution in Ghana, I.J. arrived in the U.S. in May 2023 when he was 16. When I.J. provided documentation of his age to CBP agents, they threw it in the trash and threatened him with jail time unless he signed a false statement that he was over 18.

“I.J. arrived at the border alone and terrified,” said Anthony Enriquez, VP of U.S. Advocacy and Litigation at RFKHR. “Since then, he has been bullied and belittled, denied his rights as an unaccompanied child, and locked away for months inside a Louisiana immigration detention center notorious for a culture of abuse.”

Under U.S. law, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is required to transfer custody of unaccompanied children to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR is then responsible for ensuring children are cared for in humanitarian shelters pending the outcome of immigration proceedings or reunification with a U.S.-resident sponsor. After lawyers intervened, I.J. was finally sent to an ORR shelter. But ICE re-arrested him after only a month, disregarding proper protocol and sending him back to an adult detention facility in Louisiana.

“CBP’s cruel treatment of I.J. is in direct violation of HHS and DHS policy,” said Matthew Vogel, Supervising Attorney at the National Immigration Project. “The government must follow its own guidelines and immediately release I.J. into a shelter for unaccompanied children.”

I.J.’s experience of coercion by CBP officials into signing a false confession that he was an adult is consistent with a broader and well-documented trend. From 2015 to 2020, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties received more than 100 similar complaints, spurring a large-scale investigation into Customs and Border Protection practices.

About Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights

We are a nonpartisan, not-for-profit organization that has worked to realize Robert F. Kennedy’s dream of a more just and peaceful world since 1968. In partnership with local activists, we advocate for key human rights issues—championing change makers and pursuing strategic litigation at home and around the world. And to ensure change that lasts, we foster a social-good approach to business and investment and educate millions of students about human rights and social justice.

About the National Immigration Project

The National Immigration Project (NIPNLG) is a membership organization of attorneys, advocates, and community members who are driven by the belief that all people should be treated with dignity, live freely, and flourish. We litigate, advocate, educate, and build bridges across movements to ensure that those most impacted by the immigration and criminal systems are uplifted and supported. Learn more at Follow NIPNLG on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram at @NIPNLG.

About the ACLU of Louisiana

The ACLU of Louisiana leads the charge to protect the civil rights and liberties of Louisianians, especially those most marginalized and historically harmed. True to our founding during the civil rights movement, we are fearless in the face of intimidation and fight tirelessly to protect and empower Louisiana’s Black, Brown, Immigrant, and LGBTQ+ communities. We are part of a nationwide network of affiliates working in courts, legislatures, and communities in all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C.


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