Somali youth reunites with foster family after being illegally locked up at detention center


On May 3rd, a federal judge in Seattle ruled that ICE had illegally detained Bilal, a seventeen-year-old from Somalia, at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, after arresting him at his high school and taking him away from his foster family, where he was thriving.


Portland, Oregon, where Bilal was living safely before being apprehended by ICE.
Portland, Oregon, where Bilal was living safely before being apprehended by ICE. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joe Wolf under a Creative Commons License


Bilal fled Somalia after his father was murdered. He requested asylum as soon as he arrived in the U.S. and was placed in a youth shelter by government officials. He was then placed with a foster home and family in Portland, Oregon. It seemed like Bilal's long and difficult journey was finally over. He was applying for immigration protections, enrolled in a local high school, and started building a normal life in the United States. He was finally safe from violence.

But his difficulties were far from over.

On December 9th, 2015, government officials determined that they no longer believed Bilal was a minor. They based this assumption completely on a dental bone scan analysis that had been ordered through their own paid consultant. They went to Bilal's high school where they handcuffed him and took him to the adult immigrant detention center in Tacoma.

Bilal described the experience by saying,"I was shocked and felt beat down. My mind wasn't working it was so unexpected. I thought I was going back to my family, but then the officer put handcuffs on me, didn't talk to me, all he told me was that 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." At the detention center, Bilal met with attorneys from our Tacoma office who quickly filed a petition seeking his immediate release.

The court ruled that the government (the Office of Refugee Resettlement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement) had unlawfully detained him as an adult, and had violated a federal statute that prohibits the government from making age-determinations based exclusively on radiographs like a dental bone scan analysis.

After being locked up at the detention center for almost two months, Bilal was reunited with his foster family and has now returned to his studies in Portland. He is also continuing to apply for a special immigration protection and green card for immigrant youth who have been abused or abandoned.

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 diploma."

The government's actions were indefensible. 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 comfortably settled with his foster family, his high school, and his community.

We are relieved that Bilal is back safely with his foster family. With your support, we are making sure all immigrants, particularly vulnerable children, are given safety and access to justice.