Category Archives: Immigration and Refugees

Immigrant children detained in Virginia facility say they were beaten while handcuffed and left nude in concrete cells

Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center Virginia

Michael Biesecker, Jake Pearson and Garance Burke,

Associated Press

Jun. 21, 2018,

  • Immigrant children as young as 14 housed at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia, say they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement
  • Some also allege they were left nude and shivering in concrete cells.
  • The claims are detailed in federal court filings that include a half-dozen sworn statements from Latino teens jailed there for months or years.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Immigrant children as young as 14 housed at a juvenile detention center in Virginia say they were beaten while handcuffed and locked up for long periods in solitary confinement, left nude and shivering in concrete cells.

The abuse claims against the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center near Staunton, Virginia, are detailed in federal court filings that include a half-dozen sworn statements from Latino teens jailed there for months or years. Multiple detainees say the guards stripped them of their clothes and strapped them to chairs with bags placed over their heads.

“Whenever they used to restrain me and put me in the chair, they would handcuff me,” said a Honduran immigrant who was sent to the facility when he was 15 years old. “Strapped me down all the way, from your feet all the way to your chest, you couldn’t really move. … They have total control over you. They also put a bag over your head. It has little holes; you can see through it. But you feel suffocated with the bag on.”

In addition to the children’s first-hand, translated accounts in court filings, a former child-development specialist who worked inside the facility independently told The Associated Press this week that she saw kids there with bruises and broken bones they blamed on guards. She spoke on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to publicly discuss the children’s cases.

In court filings, lawyers for the detention facility have denied all allegations of physical abuse.

Many of the children were sent there after U.S. immigration authorities accused them of belonging to violent gangs, including MS-13. President Donald Trump has repeatedly cited gang activity as justification for his crackdown on illegal immigration.

Trump said Wednesday that “our Border Patrol agents and our ICE agents have done one great job” cracking down on MS-13 gang members. “We’re throwing them out by the thousands,” he said.

But a top manager at the Shenandoah center said during a recent congressional hearing that the children did not appear to be gang members and were suffering from mental health issues resulting from trauma that happened in their home countries — problems the detention facility is ill-equipped to treat.

“The youth were being screened as gang-involved individuals. And then when they came into our care, and they were assessed by our clinical and case management staff … they weren’t necessarily identified as gang-involved individuals,” said Kelsey Wong, a program director at the facility. She testified April 26 before a Senate subcommittee reviewing the treatment of immigrant children apprehended by the Homeland Security Department.

Most children held in the Shenandoah facility who were the focus of the abuse lawsuit were caught crossing the border illegally alone. They were not the children who have been separated from their families under the Trump administration’s recent policy and are now in the government’s care.

But the facility there operates under the same program run by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. It was not immediately clear whether any separated children have been sent to Shenandoah Valley since the Trump administration in April announced its “zero tolerance” policy toward immigrant families, after the lawsuit was filed.

The Shenandoah lockup is one of only three juvenile detention facilities in the United States with federal contracts to provide “secure placement” for children who had problems at less-restrictive housing. The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in California has faced litigation over immigrant children mischaracterized as gang members. In Alexandria, Virginia, a board overseeing the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center voted this week to end its contract to house federal immigration detainees, bowing to public pressure.

The Shenandoah detention center was built by a coalition of seven nearby towns and counties to lock up local kids charged with serious crimes. Since 2007, about half the 58 beds are occupied by both male and female immigrants between the ages of 12 and 17 facing deportation proceedings or awaiting rulings on asylum claims. Though incarcerated in a facility similar to a prison, the children detained on administrative immigration charges have not yet been convicted of any crime.

Virginia ranks among the worst states in the nation for wait times in federal immigration courts, with an average of 806 days before a ruling. Nationally, only about half of juveniles facing deportation are represented by a lawyer, according to Justice Department data.

On average, 92 immigrant children each year cycle through Shenandoah, most of them from Mexico and Central America.

Wong said many of the 30 or so children housed there on any given day have mental health needs that would be better served in a residential treatment unit. But such facilities are often unwilling to accept children with significant behavioral issues, she said.

Wong and other managers at the Shenandoah center, including Executive Director Timothy J. Smith, did not respond to phone and email messages seeking comment this week. A city manager on the local commission that oversees the facility referred questions to an official at the Refugee Resettlement agency, who did not respond to a phone message.

Financial statements reviewed by AP shows the local government commission that operates the center received nearly $4.2 million in federal funds last year to house the immigrant children — enough to cover about two-thirds of the total operating expenses.

The lawsuit filed against Shenandoah alleges that young Latino immigrants held there “are subjected to unconstitutional conditions that shock the conscience, including violence by staff, abusive and excessive use of seclusion and restraints, and the denial of necessary mental health care.”

The complaint filed by the nonprofit Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs recounts the story of an unnamed 17-year-old Mexican citizen apprehended at the southern border. The teen fled an abusive father and violence fueled by drug cartels to seek asylum in the United States in 2015.

After stops at facilities in Texas and New York, he was transferred to Shenandoah in April 2016 and diagnosed during an initial screening by a psychologist with three mental disorders, including depression. Besides weekly sessions speaking with a counselor, the lawsuit alleges the teen has received no further mental health treatment, such as medications that might help regulate his moods and behavior.

The lawsuit recounts multiple alleged violent incidents between Latino children and staff at the Shenandoah center. It describes the guards as mostly white, non-Spanish speakers who are undertrained in dealing with individuals with mental illness. The suit alleges staff members routinely taunt the Latino youths with racially charged epithets, including “wetback,” ″onion head” and “pendejo,” which roughly translates to dumbass in Spanish.

A 16-year-old who said he had lived in Texas with his mother since he was an infant ended up at Shenandoah in September after a police officer pulled over a car he was riding in and asked for ID, which he couldn’t provide. As one of the few Latino kids who is fluent in English, the teen would translate for other detainees the taunts and names the staff members were calling them. He said that angered the guards, resulting in his losing such modest privileges as attending art classes.

“If you are behaving bad, resisting the staff when they try to remove you from the program, they will take everything in your room away — your mattress, blanket, everything,” he said. “They will also take your clothes. Then they will leave you locked in there for a while. This has happened to me, and I know it has happened to other kids, too.”

The immigrant detainees said they were largely segregated from the mostly white juveniles being held on criminal charges, but they could see that the other housing units had amenities that included plush chairs and video gaming consoles not available in the Spartan pods housing the Latinos.

In their sworn statements, the teens reported spending the bulk of their days locked alone in their cells, with a few hours set aside for classroom instruction, recreation and meals. Some said they had never been allowed outdoors, while the U.S.-born children were afforded a spacious recreation yard.

The Latino children reported being fed sparse and often cold meals that left them hungry, though meals of American fast food were occasionally provided. Records show Shenandoah receives nearly $82,000 a year from the Agriculture Department to feed the immigration detainees.

The lawsuit said the poor conditions, frequent physical searches and verbal abuse by staff often escalated into confrontations, as the frustrated children acted out. The staff regularly responded “by physically assaulting the youth, applying an excessive amount of force that goes far beyond what is needed to establish or regain control.”

In the case of the Mexican 17-year-old, the lawsuit said a staff member who suspected him of possessing contraband threw him to the ground and forcibly tore off his clothes for an impromptu strip search. Though no forbidden items were found, the teenager was transferred to “Alpha Pod,” described in the lawsuit as a unit within the facility designated for children who engage in bad behavior.

The lawsuit said Latino children were frequently punished by being restrained for hours in chairs, with handcuffs and cloth shackles on their legs. Often, the lawsuit alleged, the children were beaten by staff while bound.

As a result of such “malicious and sadistic applications of force,” the immigrant youths have “sustained significant injuries, both physical and psychological,” the lawsuit said.

After an altercation during which the lawsuit alleged the Mexican teenager bit a staff member during a beating, he was restrained in handcuffs and shackles for 10 days, resulting in bruises and cuts. Other teens interviewed as part of the court case also reported being punished for minor infractions with stints in solitary confinement, during which some of the children said they were left nude and shivering in cold concrete cells.

Academic studies of prison inmates kept in solitary confinement have found they often experience high anxiety that can cause panic attacks, paranoia and disordered thinking that may trigger angry outbursts. For those with mental health issues, the effects can be exacerbated, often worsening the very behaviors the staff is attempting to discourage.

A Guatemalan youth sent to the center when he was 14 years old said he was often locked in his tiny cell for up to 23 hours a day. After resisting the guards, he said he was also restrained for long periods.

“When they couldn’t get one of the kids to calm down, the guards would put us in a chair — a safety chair, I don’t know what they call it — but they would just put us in there all day,” the teen said in a sworn statement. “This happened to me, and I saw it happen to others, too. It was excessive.”

A 15-year-old from Mexico held at Shenandoah for nine months also recounted being restrained with a bag over his head.

“They handcuffed me and put a white bag of some kind over my head,” he said, according to his sworn statement. “They took off all of my clothes and put me into a restraint chair, where they attached my hands and feet to the chair. They also put a strap across my chest. They left me naked and attached to that chair for two and a half days, including at night.”

After being subjected to such treatment, the 17-year-old Mexican youth said he tried to kill himself in August, only to be punished with further isolation. On other occasions, he said, he has responded to feelings of desperation and hopelessness by cutting his wrists with a piece of glass and banging his head against the wall or floor.

“One time I cut myself after I had gotten into a fight with staff,” the teen recounted. “I filled the room with blood. This happened on a Friday, but it wasn’t until Monday that they gave me a bandage or medicine for the pain.”

The lawsuit alleges other immigrant youths held at Shenandoah have also engaged in cutting and other self-harming behaviors, including ingesting shampoo and attempting to choke themselves.

A hearing in the case is set for July 3 before a federal judge in the Western District of Virginia.

Lawyers on both sides in the lawsuit either did not respond to messages or declined to comment, citing strict confidentiality requirements in the case involving children.

The child development specialist who previously worked with teens at Shenandoah told AP that many there developed severe psychological problems after experiencing abuse from guards.

“The majority of the kids we worked with when we went to visit them were emotionally and verbally abused. I had a kid whose foot was broken by a guard,” she said. “They would get put in isolation for months for things like picking up a pencil when a guard had said not to move. Some of them started hearing voices that were telling them to hurt people or hurt themselves, and I knew when they had gotten to Shenandoah they were not having any violent thoughts.”

She said she never witnessed staff abuse teens first-hand, but that teens would complain to her of injuries from being tackled by guards and reveal bruises. The specialist encouraged them to file a formal complaint.

Though lawyers for Shenandoah responded with court filings denying all wrongdoing, information contained in a separate 2016 lawsuit appears to support some of the information contained in the recent abuse complaints.

In a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the Shenandoah center, a former staff member said he worked in unit called “Alpha Pod” where immigrant minors were held, “including those with psychological and mental issues and those who tend to fight more frequently.”

The guard, Trenton Farris, who denied claims that he punched two children, sued the justice center alleging he was wrongly targeted for firing because he is black. Farris said most staff members at the facility are white, and that two white staff members involved in the incident over which he was fired went unpunished.

Lawyers for the center denied the former guard’s claims, and the case was settled in January.

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Pearson reported from New York and Burke reported from San Francisco.

SEE ALSO: ‘Children don’t belong in jail’: Critics are seizing on Trump’s executive order to detain entire families together

The order has caused chaos; White House statements haven’t clarified what’s going on.

What Trump’s Executive Order on Immigration Does—and Doesn’t Do

Krishnadev Calamur

Updated on Sunday, January 29, at 4:12 p.m.

President Trump signed on Friday an executive order that severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely. The order has been widely criticized and praised—but it led to massive protests at several airports across the country where people with valid documentation were detained. Legal challenges against those detentions were successful. The administration’s response Sunday only made the situation more unclear.

Here’s what the executive order does and doesn’t do, the challenges to it, and how the Trump administration responded.

Who is not affected?

The executive order applies only to non-U.S. citizens, so anyone with U.S. citizenship—whether that person in natural-born or naturalized—is not affected. But on Sunday, Reince Preibus, the White House chief of staff, said on NBC’s Meet the Press that Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) agents would have the “discretionary authority” to question U.S. citizens coming from the seven countries. CBP agents have had that authority even before Friday’s executive order.

“I would suspect that if you’re an American citizen traveling back and forth to Libya, you’re likely to be subjected to further questioning when you come into an airport,” he said.

Who is affected?

For 120 days, the order bars the entry of any refugee who is awaiting resettlement in the U.S. It also prohibits all Syrian refugees from entering the U.S. until further notice. Additionally, it bans the citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries—Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen—from entering the U.S. on any visa category.*

On Saturday this included individuals who are permanent residents of the U.S. (green-card holders) who were traveling overseas to visit family or for work—though a senior administration official said their applications would be considered on a case-by-case basis. The official also said green-card holders from those countries who are in the U.S. will have to meet with a consular officer before leaving the U.S.

News reports suggested the White House overruled the Department of Homeland Security’s recommendations on excluding green-card holders from the executive orders. Preibus, on Meet the Press, denied that, then appeared to suggest that the order won’t affect permanent residents going forward, but when pressed appeared to contradict himself.

“We didn’t overrule the Department of Homeland Security, as far as green-card holders moving forward, it doesn’t affect them,” he said. But when pressed by Chuck Todd, the show’s host, on whether the order affected green-card holders, he replied: “Well, of course it does. If you’re traveling back and forth, you’re going to be subjected to further screening.”

The order also targets individuals of those countries who hold dual citizenship with another country. For instance, an individual who holds both Iraqi and Canadian citizenships—though the U.K. foreign secretary said the U.S. had assured him it didn’t apply to U.K. nationals.

It does not apply to individuals who hold U.S. citizenship along with citizenship of another country—though a CBP agent can presumably question such a person based on his or her discretion.

Why were those seven countries chosen?

Trump had made national security a centerpiece of his election campaign—at one point calling for a “total and complete” ban on all Muslims coming to the U.S. Although the executive order does not do that, Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, said on ABC’s This Week that the president “hit the ground running, had a flurry of activity, to do exactly what he said he was going to do.”

Spicer noted that the seven counties put on the list were chosen by the Obama administration. Indeed, it has its roots in the visa-waiver program. The U.S. allows the citizens of more than 30 countries to visit for short stays without a visa under this program. But that visa waiver does not apply if a citizen of an eligible country has visited—with some exceptions—Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, or Yemen on or after March 1, 2011—under measures put in place by the Obama administration. Those individuals must apply for a visa at a U.S. consulate. These seven countries are listed under section 217(a)(12) of the INA, 8 U.S.C. 1187(a)(12) of the U.S. code, and it is this code that Trump’s executive order cited while banning citizens of those nations.

What is the impact?

The number of permanent residents from these countries is relatively small. For instance, 1,016,518 green cards were issued in 2014. Of these, 19,153 went to Iraqis and 11,615 to Iranians, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s data. These two countries make up the overwhelming majority of U.S. permanent residents from among the seven nations, which together have 500,000 permanent resident in the U.S., according to ProPublica. But the seven nations, as I reported this week, also account for 40 percent of U.S. refugee intake.

Numbers, however, seldom tell the whole story. There have been multiple reports since the executive order was signed of people being prevented from boarding flights; refugees, who had gone through the years-long process before being approved to come to the U.S., stranded in third countries; of Iraqis who had worked for years with the U.S. military being denied entry; of Iranian students stuck overseas; of U.S. tech companies recalling its foreign workers because of the possible impact. And there have been protests against the order at airports across the country, including at New York’s JFK International Airport and Dulles Airport outside Washington, D.C. , and the Los Angeles International Airport where lawyers, demonstrators, and the media descended to witness the order’s impact.    

Is this a Muslim ban?

Technically, no. The ban includes seven majority Muslim countries, but by no means are these states the most populous Muslim countries, nor are they among the top sources of Muslim immigration to the U.S., nor have they produced terrorists in the same numbers as other Muslim countries not on the list. Indeed, Muslims from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, and other countries can still visit the U.S.

Still, advocacy groups challenging the order say a Muslim ban is precisely what it amounts to. Indeed, they cited former the words New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s comments Saturday on Fox News. Giuliani said that Trump had asked for a “Muslim ban,” but one that was done legally. He said he and a panel of experts “focused on, instead of religion, danger.”

“The areas of the world that create danger for us, which is a factual basis, not a religious basis,” he said. “Perfectly legal, perfectly sensible.”

He went onto say the ban was “not based on religion.”

“It’s based on places where there are substantial evidence that people are sending terrorists into our country,” he said.

“What we’ve seen here is stunning,” David Leopold, a Cleveland-based immigration lawyer who is a past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said on a conference call Saturday with reporters. “No president ever ever has used the authority and statute of the law to ban people based on their religion, ban people based on their nationality.”

He said President Carter’s ban on Iranians in 1980 after the Islamic revolution “barred certain classifications, not the whole country.”

Is there legal action?

Yes. Judges in four cities—Alexandria, Virginia; Boston; New York; and Seattle—ruled against the detention of individuals at airports—in cases filed by the ACLU and others. The rulings appear to be limited to those people already at U.S. airports or in transit. They do not appear to say anything about the legality of the president’s actions. DHS said it would comply with the orders—and some,but not all, of the people being detained at airports were allowed to leave.

The rulings were in response to legal challenges filed Saturday by the ACLU on behalf of two Iraqis who were detained at JFK Airport. The group also filed what’s known as a motion for class certification, which would allow it to represent others who say they were detained at airports and other ports of entry to the U.S. But there may be challenges ahead.

Indeed, Trump has broad discretion under the law to bar a class of person deemed detrimental to the U.S. from entering the country. Leopold, the immigration lawyer, said the issue will have to be resolved by the courts.

“The problem we’ve got there,” Leopold said, “ is that this is unprecedented.”


* This article originally states that the ban did not extend to non-Muslims from the seven countries; the ban extends to all citizens of those countries. We regret the error.

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