Yolo County News

Yolo County supervisors vote to keep housing teen immigrants for federal authorities

After more than two hours of public comment and debate, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 Tuesday afternoon to keep open a juvenile detention facility that houses immigrant youth deemed dangerous by federal immigration authorities.

For 10 years, the county has worked with the U.S. Health and Human Services' Office of Refugee Resettlement to house up to 24 undocumented immigrant teenagers who have been accused of crimes or pose serious risks to themselves or others. It's one of just three high-security juvenile immigration detention centers in the U.S. where young immigrants can be detained while the government pursues legal action against them.

In April, the county's chief probation officer, Brent Cardell, recommended the facility be closed, citing a lack of staffing and frequent assaults and injuries to staff members by the detained youth.

When he first appeared before the board in April, Cardell recalled Tuesday, he said "I've had enough. I've seen too many officers injured, off for long periods of time.'"

At the time, the board told Cardell to try to seek additional funding from the ORR first and Cardell was able to do so. On Tuesday, rather than terminate the contract, the board accepted an additional $2.2 million from the agency – nearly doubling its current budget – which will be used to hire a clinician, a senior social worker and seven additional detention workers to increase supervision.

"I do believe we have the resources to make it work," Cardell said. "There's always going to be risk ... but we (will) be much better off."

Supervisor Matt Rexroad was the sole vote against accepting money for the facility, which currently houses 21 boys between the ages of 14 and 17. The average stay for a detainee in the facility is about 40 days, the county said.

Rexroad said he didn't want to risk officers' safety, and preferred to see the county focus on caring for its local juvenile inmates instead.

"I don't think we have a moral obligation to do this," he said. "The federal government should go solve this problem on its own."

The supervisors heard from more than 25 community members, most of whom supported accepting the additional money and keeping the facility open. Many thought the young immigrants should not be locked up at all, but having them under Yolo County's benevolent eye was better than allowing them to be transferred to an unknown destination.

One of the other facilities that provide high-security detention of unaccompanied minors was recently sued for allegedly keeping detainees in "inhumane" conditions.

"These are children," said Janet Lane, a member of the Yolo Interfaith Immigration Network. "If we end this program, do we trust ORR to place them into a better (facility) than they're in now?"

Some speakers thought the closure of a federal immigration detention center would serve as a public rebuke to the Trump administration, but didn't believe the resulting uncertainty about the detainees' futures was worth the political statement.

"I will not waver from wanting to protect these children," said YIIN member David Lichtenhan. "(That's) more important than thumbing our noses at ORR."

Others couldn't stomach continuing to keep the detainees' locked up, even if staying in Yolo is the best possible situation for them.

"I rise to question the basic moralities of incarcerating unaccompanied minors who have not been convicted of a crime," pastor Mary Westfall said. "I ask you to terminate that contract."

Many in attendance frequently visit the youth to read, play games and interact with them, and said they seem like nice, normal kids.

"They open their arms to us when we come," said Nora Bromm of YIIN. "They give to us, we give what we can to them."

But Cardell sought to differentiate the teenagers held in Woodland with the stories of immigrants being separated from their families after crossing the border, and said the detainees' behavior changes dramatically when they're interacting individually with staff members.

"They're the worst of the worst," he said, elaborating to The Bee that they have "gassed staff with urine, bit, hit, kicked and spit."

Still, Cardell said, in Woodland, they have the opportunity to improve and eventually be released to sponsors, seek asylum, enter foster care or be repatriated. The facility always wants to move the youth to less restrictive settings, he said.

"They need the opportunity to deal with their issues, to change," Cardell said.

Ultimately, Supervisors Don Saylor, Jim Provenza and Duane Chamberlain sided with Cardell and the majority of the public. Chairman Oscar Villegas recused himself because his previous job included state supervision of inmate facilities, he said.

"It would be morally wrong to leave the program at this point," Provenza said. "Right now, they are Yolo County residents. I do feel responsible for them."

Saylor made it clear he was voting reluctantly to keep the facility open, and wanted to see the community follow through with promises to improve the situation, which he described as "almost untenable."

The Yolo facility has had problems in the past, including receiving seven teenagers with alleged gang ties that the county was unable to prove and holding a 14-year-old refugee from Honduras for nearly a year, even though he had not committed a crime and eventually received asylum status.

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