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ICE Detains Former Unaccompanied Minor With Pending Asylum Case On His 18th Birthday

(Photo courtesy of Immigrations and Custom Enforcement)
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Erik Javier Flores Hernandez arrived in the United States of America last year as an unaccompanied minor seeking refuge from horrific drug violence in his native Mexico. Hernandez, who was 17 when he arrived in the States, was placed in a children’s shelter while lawyers from the Immigrant Defenders Law Center fought his deportation case and helped him apply for asylum. Both Hernandez’s mother and grandmother had been disappeared at the hands of narco-traffickers when he was much younger, and the boy had also been the victim of abuse, according to representatives from the law center.

On Saturday morning—Hernandez’s 18th birthday—he was arrested and shackled by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, despite his pending asylum case. He is currently on his way to an adult detention center, according to representatives from Immigrant Defenders Law Center.

Hernandez has community and clergy members willing to take him in, as well as family in the greater Los Angeles area. He has no criminal history. The young man is sweet, soft spoken, and “still has kind of a baby face,” according to Lisa Okamoto, a managing attorney at Immigrant Defenders Law Center who was with Hernandez when he was detained this morning.

“It has not been the norm for kids like Erik to be detained in the first place,” Okamoto told LAist. “This is new.” According to Meeth Soni, Directing Attorney of Immigrant Defenders Law Center, the policy shift stems from the guidelines issued by Homeland Security Secretary John F. Kelly in a pair of memos this February, along with Trump administration executive orders on immigration. In the past, individuals who arrived as unaccompanied minors and were unable to be reunited with sponsors while still minors, would typically be released on their own recognizance on their 18th birthday, as opposed to being detained. This was especially true for youth with pending asylum claims and those who were represented, like Hernandez.

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Immigrant Defenders Law Center Executive Director Lindsay Toczylowski told LAist that her organization had been “in constant contact with ICE over the past few days” about the case, and that they had provided the agency with information about how detention would be particularly traumatizing for someone like Hernandez, who had already been the victim of violence. She was told that it was now ICE’s policy to immediately detain individuals after they turned 18, and that the agency “didn’t have discretion” to act otherwise.

"When I got the call from Lindsay that this had happened, I was really, really shocked," Guillermo Torres, a senior organizer with interfaith nonprofit CLUE, told LAist. Torres spearheads a CLUE-led coalition that provides a support network for unaccompanied minors who arrive here after fleeing violence in Central America.

Torres said that after Immigrant Defenders Law Center contacted him about Hernandez's case, he activated his organization's network and found an archdeacon with the Episcopal diocese willing to act as a sponsor for Hernandez. "She and her husband offered to take Erik into their home, to sponsor him, and to give him a safe place of refuge," Torres explained, reiterating how surprised he was when he heard that Hernandez had, in fact, been detained. "I was not just shocked, but I was disgusted that the current policies of ICE and Homeland Security will not have any kind of consideration about what was in place to help Erik. Not only that, but the dangers that lie if this kid gets deported back to Central America—he might be harmed, or he might be killed."

Okamoto sat with Hernandez and staff from the youth shelter on benches outside the facility as they waited for the ICE agents to arrive early this morning. Hernandez, who had all his belongings with him (a large black duffel bag, a small blue one, and a plastic bag with his wallet, belt, birth certificate and other essentials), told Okamoto that he liked to play basketball and watch adventure TV shows. Last night, the shelter staff made pupusas for his birthday.

After an ICE officer arrived in a large white van, Hernandez was searched, shackled at his feet, and handcuffed. “The entire time he was very quiet. He was looking down,” Okamoto said. “I just tried to reassure him that he was not going to be alone and that his attorney will stay on his case. He still does have a pending asylum case, and we will probably find out if he’s been granted that in the next week and a half. If he gets granted asylum, that’s basis for ending removal proceedings. So that should be enough to get him out of detention.”

“I think Erik was probably one of multiple pickups that [the ICE agent] was going to do, because he mentioned that he also had to go up to other shelters as well,” Okamoto said. “Today is Erik’s 18th birthday, so they don’t wait a day. Once they turn 18, they will come and take you.”

An ICE spokesperson confirmed that Hernandez was detained this morning and provided LAist with the following statement:

Individuals being housed in centers operated by the Department of Health and Human Services that are designed to hold unaccompanied alien children may not appropriately remain in those facilities once they reach age 18, as Mr. Flores now has. Accordingly, he was transferred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody Saturday and will be moved to a facility used to house immigration detainees who are 18 and older. ICE is currently reviewing the circumstances of Mr. Flores’ case to determine appropriate next steps. At this time, his immigration proceedings are ongoing before the Department of Justice’s Executive Office for Immigration Review.