From a set of cozy offices tucked between the second and third floors of Smith Hall at the University of Washington, Angelina Godoy and her team are waging a legal battle with the federal government to obtain secret files about Cowlitz County juvenile inmates.

For more than a year, the director of the UW’s Center for Human Rights has sought the complete jail file of all immigrant minors held at the Cowlitz County Juvenile Detention Center between 2015 and July 2018. The county was initially willing to release the information, but Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) says it alone has the authority to release the records, and the agency has declined to do so thus far.

For Godoy, it’s a matter of protecting the vulnerable and making sure democratic values are upheld.

“[ICE is] insisting, ‘Not only do we have a right to hold kids, but nobody can even know about it, [or] have information about the reason why we’re holding them,’ ” Godoy said. “ ‘And if you ask for that information, we’re going to drag you to court.’ ”

She said the jail, in effect, became a “black site,” a military term for a secret location to detain alleged unlawful enemy combatants.

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“I don’t use the term ‘black site’ lightly,” Godoy said. “The notion somebody should be locked up, and that the legal grounds on which they are locked up is not knowable, that you can’t even ask about, that is troubling. I think that that’s antithetical to democracy.”

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ICE declined to comment on the case, citing pending litigation.

Cowlitz County has a contract to hold minors in the jail under a contract with ICE. It’s one of three facilities that contract with the federal agency to hold minors for longer than 72 hours at a time.

A lawsuit from Cowlitz County is now asking for a judge to rule on whether the county can release the jail files to Godoy. And ICE has stepped in to request the case be moved to federal court. A Clark County judge is set to rule this month on that request.

“I’m a parent myself,” Godoy said “The thought that anybody could take a child, lock them up without bringing charges against them, without having to bring them before a court of law, and just hold them in secrecy is chilling. Whether they’re immigrants or nonimmigrants, it’s chilling.”

Godoy is the Helen H. Jackson Chair in Human Rights and a professor of international studies and law, societies and justice at the UW. She has authored books on vigilante justice and access to health care in Latin America. In addition to investigating ICE, the Center for Human Rights has projects studying mass incarceration and armed conflicts in El Salvador. The Legislature created the center in 2009 to research and address human rights abuses.

Although her work sometimes puts her in legal contention with the federal government, she says she’s just doing research for the public.

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“I have been a critic of ICE, but we’re not doing this to try to attack a government agency or undermine their work,” Godoy said. “We’re doing this to try to understand what’s happening and inform the public.”

Godoy and her researchers learned about Cowlitz County’s contract with ICE in 2017 and 2018 through public records requests as part of the center’s broader project to investigate hidden immigration practices in Washington.

The records revealed that 15 minors have stayed at the Juvenile Center for some amount of time between June 2013 and June 2018. Their stays ranged from just under five days to nearly 10 months. Cowlitz County Juvenile Justice Administrator Chad Connors said last week that there are currently four minors detained for ICE at the center, and he said there have been roughly 30 detained from Jan. 1, 2013, through the end of July 2019.

The county signed a contract in 2001 with U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, the predecessor to ICE, to house juveniles who are determined to be a safety risk while awaiting immigration court proceedings. The county’s role is to house them for as long as ICE needs while they go through the legal process.

In prepared statements sent by email, ICE said that’s only done in “rare circumstances.”

These juveniles “present a public safety or national security threat — including those with charges for murder or child molestation,” ICE said. “It would be irresponsible and potentially dangerous for the agency to allow these individuals to remain out of custody with a guardian.”

ICE currently has eight accompanied juveniles housed in facilities, including Cowlitz County’s, the agency said. Of these eight, all are males, with one being 16 years old and seven being 17 years old.

ICE and Connors have said that the minors held at these facilities for ICE receive the same treatment and services as U.S. citizens held there. That includes medical, mental health, substance abuse, counseling and education services.

According to the contract, the county can only house “List 1” detainees. These include youths with criminal convictions or pending charges; those “chargeable as a criminal”; those who pose escape risks; “adjudicated delinquents”; those engaged in disruptive behavior while in a shelter program; or those who have committed a violent or threatening act toward themselves or another.

If all of that is the case, Godoy said, ICE ought to release the records and demonstrate why they’re dangerous.

So she filed another request for the jail files of those minor inmates, redacted to conceal personally identifying information. She wanted to see charges, conviction histories, booking sheets and other information that could explain on what basis ICE is holding the minors.

State law allows universities some increased access to sensitive records for research purposes, so Cowlitz County “was willing to release,” according to its court filings. The juvenile office compiled the records and told ICE it planned to only send files with names and other personally identifying information redacted, according to court filings. But ICE said that federal law prohibited release of the files even with those redactions.

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In a September 2018 email from ICE to Connors, the county juvenile justice director, the agency said those jail files “cannot be released” through the county and must be requested through ICE.

Under federal regulations, local governments contracting with ICE cannot disclose “the name of, or other information relating to” detainees they hold for the agency. That information is under federal control and “shall not be public records” if it contains information on detainees.

So Godoy requested the records directly from ICE in February. The agency rejected her request and an appeal that the UW filed. ICE told the Center for Human Rights that the records were private and could only be released if the detained juveniles give permission, Godoy said.

But that’s circular logic, Godoy said: Without the records, she and her team don’t know who the juveniles are, let alone how to ask them for permission.

In February, the county filed suit in Cowlitz County Superior Court, asking for a judge to determine whether it can lawfully release the records. In March, lawyers for the Center for Human Rights asked the court to order the records released and rule that the federal law is not “an absolute bar” to their release.

In the meantime, a hearing Nov. 21 at Cowlitz County Superior Court will determine whether ICE can intervene in the case as a defendant and have the case moved to federal court.

Cowlitz County Superior Court judges oversee the juvenile courts, including the detention facility, so the entire bench has recused itself to avoid a conflict of interest, Superior Court Judge Stephen Warning said. That’s why a Clark County judge will hear the case.

Whatever happens to Godoy’s request, Cowlitz County won’t be holding minors for ICE much longer. The Keep Washington Working Act, a law the Legislature passed in April, mandates all immigration detention agreements such as the Juvenile Center’s must end by Dec. 31, 2021. It also blocks any new agreements from being made.