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‘I don’t think children should be in jail’: Why does Yolo do it?

Who are the kids at the Woodland Detention Center?

Undocumented juveniles try to find their way at the Yolo County detention center in Woodland.
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Undocumented juveniles try to find their way at the Yolo County detention center in Woodland.

If it weren't for undocumented immigrants, Yolo County might have shut down its prison for juveniles long ago. The dirty business of incarcerating undocumented youths was attractive to Yolo because the county had barely completed its Woodland youth prison on East Gibson Road in 2005 when the practice of incarcerating American youths in county facilities was largely abandoned.

A then-brand new 90-bed youth prison was sitting largely empty when the feds came to Yolo with a deal they couldn't refuse in 2008: They would pay Yolo a lot of money, currently more than $5 million for the year, to house undocumented kids in their new prison for kids.

Yes, it seems crazy that Yolo is housing up to 24 undocumented immigrant kids in its youth jail today. The nation is roiling over the separation of undocumented youths from their families and the detention of those kids in facilities across America. It's a byproduct of President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" policy of arresting and prosecuting any and all undocumented people, including those seeking asylum from violence ravaged Central American countries.

Why is Yolo still in business with a federal immigration system that is broken and immoral? On Friday, civil rights lawyers filed a class-action lawsuit against federal immigration authorities for allegedly violating the rights of undocumented youth and forcibly drugging them with psychotropic medication.

"I don't think children should be in jail," said Holly Cooper, a Davis-based immigration lawyer who was part of the legal team that sued the federal government on behalf of undocumented youth.

Yet just days before this lawsuit, Yolo voted to extend its undocumented youth prison contract despite the trend across the nation for cities and counties to get out of business with federal immigration authorities.

If this makes no sense, it's because it doesn't. But we can't point fingers at Yolo, through our ignorance as Americans, we're all co-conspirators in this story.

In 2008, Yolo was just trying to mitigate its cost when it went into business the feds. It was all about filling a building, the youth prison. The county had no idea what they were getting into. And now, the county is seemingly in too deep to get out. They continue incarcerating undocumented youth because it's the wrong thing done for the right reasons.

"It would be morally wrong to leave the program at this point," said Jim Provenza, a Yolo County Supervisor last week. "Right now, (the prisoners) are Yolo County residents. I do feel responsible for them."

Here are some facts: No girls are incarcerated in the Yolo youth prison, only boys mostly between 15 and 17. According to Yolo County probation officers overseeing the care of undocumented prisoners, the youth incarcerated in Yolo are there because they are considered to be a danger to themselves or others.

They were apprehended in some form or fashion, and during their intake process with federal immigration authorities were found to have criminal records that include, but are not limited to: sex offenses, drug offenses and violent crimes. Only three youth prisons incarcerate undocumented youth across the nation and Yolo is one of them. These youths make up less than 1 percent of undocumented refugee youth in the federal immigration system.

"These are the worst of the worst," said Brent Cardall, Yolo County's chief probation officer.

As their lawyer, Cooper disputes this characterization. She said in many cases the feds have not been able to prove the allegations they use to incarcerate undocumented youths.

Because they are minors, I was not allowed to interview or speak with them informally. A Bee photographer was not allowed to photograph them, even from behind. Their records are secret and what ultimately happens to them when they leave Yolo is shrouded in secrecy or bureaucracy.

Make no mistake: These youths are in prison. It's still a fairly new facility. It's clean. It has an indoor, modern basketball court that is air conditioned. Beautiful murals inside common areas were painted by Latino artists. The staff at the Yolo youth prison, led by Julie Burns, is caring and committed.

But it's a prison. And its prisoners are not what you might think.

While Trump fanned the flames of his "base" by demonizing Mexico during his winning 2016 campaign, the truth was that Mexican migration has been plummeting to lows not seen in decades. Meanwhile, Central Americans, mostly from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, were migrating northward due to a crisis of humanity in that region that is still largely unknown by many in the U.S.

Of the 24 undocumented kids being housed in Yolo, where are most of them from? Central America.

Are you aware that Nicaragua is currently imploding through protests and government violence? That Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world? That El Salvador is so dependent on the U.S. that it adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2001? And ever since, prices for goods have spiked while wages have remained flat?

These nations are desperate. What most people here aren't seeing or realizing is that decades of U.S. imperialism have helped create a Central American diaspora. You don't really hear about it in the news. News organizations have done a terrible job of covering the implosion of Central America.

But its victims are in Yolo County. Roberto Paniagua, a detention officer working inside the Yolo youth prison, might have been a prisoner but for the circumstances of his life. His family moved from El Salvador to the U.S. when he was 12, as the conversion to the dollar began to price out humble Salvadorans. At the same time, Salvadoran gangs born in the U.S. began to spread back to El Salvador and prey on people in the vacuum of leadership by a succession of broke governments.

In a sense, Paniagua was lucky. His family was able to establish residency in the U.S. and today he is an American citizen, and a graduate of UC Davis.

But the emotional trauma of being ripped from a safe and stable environment in El Salvador took a toll on him.

"That's something that is really hard," he said, choking back tears. "You had friends growing up and then I didn't have anyone. We were just (kids)...Was it our fault?"

Paniagua views his role as a kind of mentor.

"I tell them that they can be like me," he said. "I want them to leave here and prove people wrong. We are good people. We are humble and resilient. We have a lot of negative narrative given to us but we have beautiful stories. Not a lot of Americans are informed about our history. How come I know your history but you don't know mine?"

Paniagua said many of the youth prisoners he mentors tell him they want to be writers or poets. He wishes the best for them, but said he is not allowed to stay in touch with them when they leave. Because none of the incarcerated youth was referred by Yolo County authorities, none of them stays in Yolo County when they are either placed in group homes, foster homes or with family. They mostly return to the state from which they were referred while pursuing their immigration cases.

So why does Yolo do it? Because, as Provenza said, local authorities feel responsible for the youth. Even Cooper conceded that ending the contract between Yolo and the feds could make things worse for the youth.

"Are they going to be better off if they are placed somewhere with less support?" Cooper asked. "If you move them out of California they may end up in a state with worse laws. There are no easy answers."

Cooper is right, there are no easy answers. There is only an undeclared humanitarian crisis feeding immigration where a now-hostile US government separates families while Americans remain divided and ignorant of the crisis. And local officials do the best they can when this disaster lands on their front door.

What has become of the nation of immigrants?

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