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Justice Department moves case over Cowlitz County youth detainees to federal court

An attempt to release the records of immigrant juveniles held in secrecy in Cowlitz County was put on an indefinite hold this week after the U.S. government moved the fight over those files to federal court.

The case — concerning the records of juveniles held in the Cowlitz County Youth Services Center for Immigration Customs and Enforcement — was moved by order of the U.S. Department of Justice.

That shifts the legal battle over the files, which is between a University of Washington researcher and ICE. A hearing was previously scheduled for Jan. 15 in Clark County, when a judge was expected to rule on Cowlitz County’s request to release the records. That hearing likely will now be voided.

“We expected resolution on 1/15, but now we’re thrown into a whole new round of battles with no end in sight,” Angelina Godoy said Tuesday on Twitter. “Thus confirming what we knew all along … that ICE intends to make the process against us as costly, complex, & painful as possible, to harass us into stopping our research.”

Godoy, a professor at UW, directs the University’s Center for Human Rights. For more than a year, her organization has sought information on the juveniles held in the Youth Services Center, saying that holding prisoners without public access to the legal grounds for doing so is “antithetical to democracy.”

Because the case involves a federal agency and concerns, it should be evaluated in a federal forum, ICE argued in its court filings.

“Substantively, Cowlitz County’s desired outcome in this case is directly adverse to the United States’ interests,” the notice filed Dec. 30 by the Department of Justice reads. “Accordingly, the United States removes this case to the United States District Court.”

ICE claims that federal regulations give it sole authority to release the documents. Godoy and the university disagree. Their court filings argue that the university is a public agency, which is entitled to the records for research purposes, and the county has filed in agreement.

The case is now in the U.S. District Court for Western Washington in Tacoma.

Initial record requests have shown that 15 minors stayed at the juvenile center for some amount of time between June 2013 and June 2018. Their stays ranged from less than five days to nearly 10 months. Godoy’s request spans juveniles held at any point between the beginning of 2015 through July 15, 2018.

The county knows the criminal background and history of the minors, which Godoy requested last year as part of an investigation by UW into immigration practices in Washington. ICE blocked juvenile justice officials from releasing that information, so the county, which is willing to release it, filed suit in February to ask a judge to determine whether it can lawfully do so. The case has attracted national attention.

The Cowlitz County prosecutor’s office, representing the county, asked in November for a judge to authorize the release of the records to Godoy and the university.


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