NYCLU files motion to speed up release of immigrant teens detained on average eight months due to Lloyd’s policy
NEW YORK – Hundreds of immigrant children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) have been delayed from reuniting with family for months due to a new policy instituted by Trump administration appointee Scott Lloyd. After taking charge of the ORR in March 2017, director Scott Lloyd instituted a new policy requiring his personal approval to release any immigrant child who has at one time been in a heightened supervision custody placement. In an urgent motion filed yesterday evening, the New York Civil Liberties Union asked a judge to halt ORR’s new policy and ensure that immigrant teens in custody in New York are promptly released and reunited with family members. The NYCLU sued the Office of Refugee Resettlement in February over the new policy that has left hundreds of immigrant teens locked up for months and even years.
“Hundreds of children have been locked up for months and separated from their families because of a heartless and irrational policy that is preventing children from reuniting with their sponsors as soon as possible,” said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “The Trump administration has transformed an agency dedicated to protecting the most vulnerable immigrants, including many children who have faced trauma and violence, into one dedicated to punishing them.”
The Office of Refugee Resettlement is tasked with protecting immigrant children and reuniting them with family sponsors, yet under the direction of Lloyd, the length of stay in detention for children whose release Mr. Lloyd must personally approve has grown exponentially. In New York, these children have now been detained on average for eight months, with the clock still running. Twenty percent have been detained for over a year. In a deposition, Mr. Lloyd told NYCLU attorneys that he adopted the review policy within hours of becoming ORR director without any analysis or even a count of the children in his custody who would be impacted. He testified that the only documents that he considered before instituting the policy were news reports about criminal activity involving immigrant minors.
In the year since Mr. Lloyd has been at the helm of ORR, more than 700 children have been subject to the policy requiring director-level approval for release. Yet only 12 percent have been released to adult sponsors, in stark contrast to the over 90 percent of all children in ORR custody released within 35 to 45 days in previous years. Mr. Lloyd has claimed that the policy of reviewing the cases of immigrant children who have been in heightened supervision placements is intended to assess their “dangerousness.” Yet, ORR already has practices in place to evaluate both the children and their proposed family sponsors. The majority of the children, including the lead plaintiff in the NYCLU’s class action suit, are no longer in heightened supervision placements—meaning the agency has concluded they pose no danger to anyone. The lead plaintiff, identified as LVM, was initially placed in a higher security facility due to unfounded accusations of gang membership. His case workers concluded he should be returned to his mother’s care, and an immigration judge ruled he posed no danger, but LVM remained in custody until the NYCLU filed this class action lawsuit.
“Prolonged detention has an extremely harmful impact on these young people. These are teens who fled abuse and violence, some struggle with mental health issues, and all of them are anxious to get out of detention and be with their families and communities,” said Paige Austin, NYCLU staff attorney. “The Office of Refugee Resettlement is supposed to place children with sponsors as quickly as possible, but over the last year the Trump administration has ignored that requirement – using unfounded accusations of dangerousness as an excuse.”
A review of the files of immigrant teens subject to this review policy paints a bleak picture of delays that have exposed young people to further harm and trauma. A psychiatrist reviewing many of the teens’ case files found every one of them had a significant trauma history. One child who was referred for release by caseworkers attempted to commit suicide and was hospitalized while awaiting the director’s decision. Another who was recommended for release by social workers and awaiting an overdue release decision by the director was subject to sexual abuse by a staff member at the facility where he was detained.
In a sharp departure from best practices for child welfare organizations, Director Lloyd has taken a highly personal role in the lives of the young people in the agency’s custody. In addition to personally reviewing the cases of immigrant youth in the agency’s custody and delaying their release, Mr. Lloyd has also intervened to prevent young people from accessing reproductive care. In March, a federal judge blocked ORR from interfering with any undocumented minors’ reproductive health care, as part of ongoing litigation by the American Civil Liberties Union. The NYCLU expects a ruling on the motion to intervene to promptly release immigrant children subject to this review policy later this spring.
In addition to Dunn and Austin, NYCLU counsel on the case include staff attorney Aadhithi Padmanabhan, legal fellow Scout Katovich, researcher Maria Rafael, investigator Paula Garcia-Salazar and paralegals Ingrid Sydenstricker and Andrea Barrientos.