Federal Court Rules that Somali Youth Was Unlawfully Detained by ICE at Northwest Detention Center

May 5, 2016
Contact: Matt Adams, Legal Director, NWIRP
(206) 501-6249; matt@nwirp.org

Seattle, WA – On May 3, 2016, the United States District Court in Seattle, Washington, granted a habeas petition filed by Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) on behalf of a seventeen-year-old boy who was taken from high school by federal officials, wrenched away from his foster family, and instead locked up at an adult detention center in Tacoma, Washington.

The petitioner, Bilal, fled his native land of Somalia after his father was murdered, and requested asylum when he arrived at the port of entry in Texas. The Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) first placed Bilal in a youth shelter, before transferring him to a foster home in Portland, Oregon. However, on December 9, 2015, ORR officials determined that they no longer believed Bilal to be a minor, based solely on a dental bone scan analysis (radiography) that they ordered through their paid consultant, Dr. Senn, from the University of Texas. ORR officials arrested Bilal at high school and transferred him to ICE custody at the adult detention center in Tacoma, Washington. After he came in contact with NWIRP attorneys, NWIRP filed a habeas petition seeking his immediate release.

The court ruled that ORR and ICE violated the statute in unlawfully detaining him as an adult, and violated the express language of the federal statute that precludes the government from making age-determinations based exclusively on radiographs.  The statute was enacted in 2008 as Congress sought to protect unaccompanied children from unbridled agency actions.

“The agency’s actions were indefensible,” said Matt Adams, legal director for NWIRP. “Instead of protecting unaccompanied children, and focusing enforcement actions on those who pose an actual threat to the community, they targeted a child who, after escaping horrible violence, was now integrated with his foster family, his high school and community.”

Federal district judge Marsha Pechman soundly rejected the agency’s argument defending its actions, calling the argument “facially frivolous.” Over the agency’s objections, she affirmed the report and recommendation issued by Chief Magistrate Judge James Donahue, who initially ruled that Bilal must be released from ICE custody and that the agency’s age determination policy violates the law.

After being locked up for almost two months at the Northwest Detention Center, B.I.C. was reunited with his foster family and has returned to his studies at Reynolds High School in Portland, Oregon.

Bilal tried to explain how difficult the experience was: “I was shocked and felt beat down, my mind wasn’t working it was so unexpected. I thought I was going back to family, but then the officer put handcuffs on me, didn’t talk to me, just told me I was over 18. In Tacoma there were so many people. I couldn’t sleep for two days. I could barely eat. I was so scared.”

But Bilal is now more determined than ever to succeed in his new community, explaining, “the experience was so painful, it is hard for me to describe in English. But now I know I will not stop. I am going to get my high school degree.”

A copy of the Judge Pechman’s final order can be found here and the Report and Recommendation issued by Chief Magistrate Judge Donahue can be found here.