For $170 per person per day, Cowlitz County has kept both juveniles and secrets for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Although Cowlitz County owns the Juvenile Detention Center in Longview, a longstanding contract with ICE allows the federal agency to detain minors there by its own rules while they await deportation proceedings.
Under a federal immigration policy written months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, ICE claims sole authority over all information about its detainees. That includes the names of those held, the duration of their stays and the charges against them.
The application of this strict War on Terror-era secrecy to children caught up in President Donald Trump’s crackdown on immigration is appalling. The conversion of a public facility in Washington state into a secret detention zone must end.
The University of Washington Center for Human Rights has fought this abuse of government secrecy. In July 2018, Director Angelina Snodgrass Godoy asked Cowlitz County to disclose jail records for all minors housed at the facility since 2015. ICE blocked the county from releasing hundreds of pages of files. A court fight continues this week in Cowlitz County Superior Court, where ICE will ask to move the dispute before a federal judge.
No matter the courtroom outcome, state law guarantees this flawed arrangement will end. The Keep Washington Working Act signed into law last spring requires all immigration detention agreements in Washington state and local government-owned facilities to end by Dec. 31, 2021, and forbids new ones.
That, however, does not solve the problem at hand. The detention and treatment of minors in Cowlitz County today in a government facility must be brought to light.
Godoy says that despite her prolonged study of the Cowlitz setup, she can’t definitively tell how many minors have passed through the facility. Limited records the county provided her showed 15 minors had been housed there on stays between 11 hours to 10 months. A county spokesman has said about 30 immigrant minors had been kept there since the start of 2013.
The facility is one of only three in the country that can hold minors for ICE longer than 72 hours at a time. An ICE court filing says detainees there have included minors with criminal convictions or pending charges, as well as some who have been found to be escape risks, violent or threatening, or disruptive in shelters. No specifics of any case have been made public. The American justice system is supposed to function with better transparency than this.
The end of 2021 is too far away to make things right in Longview. Courts should end the secrecy surrounding the detention of young people at what Godoy has labeled — fairly — a “black site.” The public deserves to know the realities of how federal immigration policy is playing out in Washington state.