Success and Impact

Class-Action Suit Strengthens Protections For Immigrant Children

Artwork of a heart on a brick wall

In March 2022, a federal court held that unaccompanied children in federal immigration custody are entitled to greater constitutional protections than they are currently afforded when they are detained in restrictive placements or denied release to family. 

The court order was filed in the class-action lawsuit, Lucas R. v. Azar, which was brought against the U.S. government in 2018 by a group of unaccompanied immigrant children, including one child who spent nearly two years in federal custody. The suit, for which the National Center for Youth law serves as co-counsel for the Plaintiffs, alleges the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for the custody and release of unaccompanied immigrant children, employs policies that violate the constitutional rights of the children in its custody.

The Plaintiffs had sought a court order to resolve three of five claims alleged in their complaint.
Judge Dolly M. Gee, who presides over the case in California’s Central District, held that ORR’s policies and procedures “fall short of its constitutional and statutory obligations in several specific ways.” Citing the harm detention causes children, particularly young children, she ordered ORR to set and abide by clear standards when determining whether to transfer a child to restrictive, jail-like facilities, and that it make other reforms aimed at providing children and their families appropriate avenues for due process, access to legal representation, and the ability to appeal ORR’s decisions to refuse to release children to their families.

The court order marked a major victory for detained immigrant youth, as it will prevent them from languishing in custody without recourse, as well as prevent them from being unnecessarily detained in restrictive facilities without appropriate protections.

Specifically, the court found that children have been transferred to and remained in more secure facilities longer than necessary or without sufficient justification. The court agreed that ORR's policy of moving children to restrictive placements including juvenile detention centers, residential treatment centers, and so-called “staff secure” placements, with no appeals process, negatively impacts these kids' mental health. In light of this acknowledgement, the court ordered that the government must “employ a ‘clear and convincing’ evidentiary standard in deciding when a minor should be stepped up to a more restrictive placement” and give minors the opportunity to immediately appeal their placement in a restrictive setting, with the assistance of counsel.

Further, the order extends the right to appeal the denial of a sponsorship application beyond just parents of a child in custody to their siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Moreover, the court will require the government to ensure written notice to denied sponsors to inform them of their right to appeal and be represented by counsel.

Case background

In Lucas R. v. Azar, the Plaintiffs allege violations of rights afforded to unaccompanied immigrant children under the U.S. Constitution and the Flores Settlement Agreement, which set minimum standards for the custody, detention, and release of children in federal immigrant custody. Five immigrant children are challenging the government for unlawfully detaining them in jail-like conditions for prolonged periods, drugging them with powerful psychotropic medication without consent, arbitrarily denying them release to their families, denying them full access to legal counsel, and placing children with disabilities in unnecessarily restrictive settings because of their disability.

Joining NCYL as counsel for the Plaintiffs are the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law, UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic, and Cooley LLP.

The parties are negotiating the case’s remaining two claims, which are set for trial Nov. 1, 2022.