Class Action Lawsuit Exposes Abuse and Isolation of Immigrant Children at Virginia Facility

In the backyard of our Nation’s Capital is a place where children, who have not committed any crime, are being locked up indefinitely. How they got there, and how they are being treated, is a shameful part of America’s immigration practices and policy.

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In the past decade, tens of thousands of families and children have sought refuge from violence and terror in Mexico and Central America, particularly El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A large part of the violence is due to the growth of organized crime in the past few decades. This problem was created, at least in part, by the U.S. immigration practices in the mid-1990s. After being incarcerated in America, significant numbers of immigrants with gang affiliations were deported back to countries where there was no institutional support to help them start a new life, and where they had little ties because they had come to the U.S. as young children. These factors have led gangs formed in the U.S.—like M-18 and MS-13 in Los Angeles—to spread across Central America, wreaking havoc.

Each story is unique, but many families seeking refuge have experienced constant harassment by gangs that either try to recruit youth or extort money under threat of bodily harm or death. Day to day activities like going to work, attending school, or even residing in their own homes become life threatening. When they flee, many families and children travel thousands of miles, risking further violence, in order to present themselves to immigration officials at the U.S. border and ask for asylum or another form of immigration relief.vox image children 3

By federal law, when children seeking asylum cross the border without a parent or legal guardian in the United States they are supposed to be “promptly placed in the least restrictive setting that is in the best interests of the child.” 8 U.S.C. § 1232(c)(2)(A). Yet some of these children end up in one of two “secure” facilities in the U.S.—“Yolo,” a detention center in Yolo County, California, or the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center (“SVJC”) in Staunton, Virginia.

SVJC purports to provide a safe and secure environment for youth, but in reality, it is a prison. The immigrant children detained at SVJC are locked in their rooms for 12-14 hours per day, fed substandard meals that leave them hungry, watched while they use the toilet, given just 1 hour of recreation time per day, and required to use earned “good behavior” points to access personal hygiene items such as toothpaste and soap.

shanandoahThe class action lawsuit we filed with Wiley Rein in October on behalf of immigrant children detained at SVJC challenges these conditions as well as the horrid discrimination and abuse by the SVJC staff they have suffered. For example, to punish children, SVJC staff have stripped them naked and confined them to their rooms for lengthy periods of time. Once, our client “John Doe” (“J.D.”) was tied to a chair, beaten, and left for four hours.

These children are refugees who have endured unthinkable violence and trauma in their home countries only to be met by further violence and trauma here. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to escape and seek help only to face prolonged detention in dehumanizing conditions from the agencies charged by our government to care for them.

Moreover, SVJC is not only failing to provide minimally adequate mental health services for these children, it is exacerbating many of their severe mental health problems. J.D. began hurting himself after he arrived in America. He has attempted suicide. Instead of being treated, he has been punished and isolated. Other children at SVJC who have also engaged in self-harm have been told by staff, “Kill yourself already.”

All immigrants who arrive in the United States have the right to due process and fair, humane treatment. In filing this lawsuit we seek to help J.D. and other immigrant children enforce those rights and reaffirm the idea that regardless of their immigration status they deserve to be treated humanely. Our goal is to stop the Constitutional violations at SVJC and reform its practices so that J.D. and the other immigrant children held there will no longer face violent conditions, and instead have a chance to heal from their previous traumatic experiences. If the government allows the current situation to persist at Shenandoah Juvenile Detention Center and other similar facilities, it risks continuing the cycle of violence it aided in the 1990s.

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