National Center for Youth Law

Press Releases

Government’s Indefinite Detention and Unlawful Drugging of Immigrant and Refugee Children Challenged





April 17, 2018

Lewis Cohen: (510) 899-6561;

Los Angeles, CA – Last night, immigrant children filed a motion in federal court to end government policies and practices that unlawfully prolong their detention and delay children’s reunification with their families. Many children in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement are detained in harsh, jail-like conditions for prolonged periods creating a continuum of trauma that the children—many of whom arrive in the United States having suffered horrific trauma abroad—are ill-equipped to endure.

The motion seeks to enforce provisions of a settlement entered into by the U.S. government that governs the detention of immigrant children. The motion charges the government with inappropriately detaining children in restrictive detention centers without fair process, unlawfully medicating children without parental authorization, and failing to promptly release children to family members in the United States.

The 1997 settlement agreement in Flores v. Reno set national standards for the treatment and placement of minors in what was then Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) custody. INS obligations under the agreement are now the responsibility of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). The agreement set minimum standards for initial detention and established a policy favoring release of minors. It also requires that children who remain in federal custody be placed in the least restrictive environment.

The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law (CHRCL) and the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), co-counsel in the Flores complaint filed in 1985, joined by the Immigration Law and Civil Rights Clinics of University of California Davis School of Law, have filed the Motion to Enforce the Flores Settlement in an effort to secure the rights to which their clients are entitled.

According to the motion, ORR “steps up” youth from shelters to medium-secure, secure, and psychiatric facilities without procedural fairness or transparency. These “step-ups” have profound implications on youth including placing children in more restrictive conditions and prolonging the child’s time in detention. In addition, the motion alleges that ORR places some minors in facilities where they are administered powerful psychotropic medications for weeks, months, or years, without obtaining parental or judicial authorization. Finally, the plaintiffs allege the government is ignoring the requirements of the Flores settlement by prolonging custody of children who have fit, available custodians.

CHRCL’s Carlos Holguín, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, says the government is denying immigrant and refugee children their rights and treating them like dangerous criminals in blatant and willful violation of its legal obligations. “Many children are neither too dangerous nor too prone to flee to warrant continued detention. They are needlessly suffering trauma associated with unnecessary detention and family separation.”

According to co-counsel Leecia Welch of NCYL the administration of psychotropic medications to detained children is of particular concern. “These powerful drugs are known to have dangerous side-effects and many class members have, in fact, suffered from them. Administering psychotropic drugs to children for prolonged periods without procedural safeguards, such as obtaining parental or judicial authorization, needlessly places them at risk and violates the Settlement Agreement.”

Holly S. Cooper, co-counsel and Co-Director of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic states, “Everyone, especially a child, deserves the right to basic fairness and transparency before being placed in a secure detention facility. The Settlement enshrines this basic right to notice and the children are here to claim it.”


The Center for Human Rights & Constitutional Law is a non-profit, public interest legal foundation dedicated to furthering and protecting the civil, constitutional, and human rights of immigrants, refugees, children, prisoners, and the poor. 

The National Center for Youth Law is a non-profit law firm that helps marginalized children achieve their potential by transforming the public agencies that serve them. For more information, please visit 

The Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California Davis is one of the few clinics in the nation devoted to representing detained immigrants before the immigration court — challenging conditions of confinement and contesting their confinement in federal court.