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caption: A youth jail in Cowlitz County is holding a small number of undocumented youth. ICE says the youth have 'serious criminal histories' but have kept researchers from accessing jail records.
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A youth jail in Cowlitz County is holding a small number of undocumented youth. ICE says the youth have 'serious criminal histories' but have kept researchers from accessing jail records.

The last immigrant youth jail in the country moves to end contract with ICE

The Cowlitz County Youth Services Center in Longview, WA — one of the last detention centers in the country that holds undocumented immigrant youth — has moved to terminate its contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The Cowlitz County Youth Services Center in Longview, near the Oregon border has contracted with ICE to hold immigrant youth since 2001. The County collects $170 per day per youth, according to public documents.

Officials with Cowlitz Youth Services Center said in a news release, “Due to the increased lengths of stay not suited for our short-term facility, and because it's clear the legislature intended to end contracts of this nature within our state, Cowlitz County Superior Court has notified ICE of our intention to terminate the contract."

Undocumented immigrant youth who enter the country without parents or family typically stay in shelters contracted with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal office tasked with their care.

ICE officials told KUOW these detained youth are threats to public safety, stating in an email, "In rare circumstances, ICE does contract bed space with state-licensed facilities to house both accompanied and unaccompanied minors with serious criminal histories — including those with charges for murder or child molestation."

Immigration activists are pushing back on that narrative, maintaining that ICE doesn't have the authority to hold youth for criminal charge, and entering the U.S. without proper documentation is an administrative offense — not a criminal one.

Human rights researchers at the University of Washington have also called Cowlitz a "black-box" for its lack of information. The lack of transparency even led to a lawsuit over public records to find out exactly how many youth are detained, for how long, and on what charges.

Immigrant youth jails like Cowlitz are rare.

Cowlitz is one of three in the U.S. that holds youth for more than 72 hours. The Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility in The Dalles, which also contracted with ICE to hold immigrant youth, made a similar decision to end its contract with the agency last summer.

Most of the youth are young men from Central America, between the ages of 16 and 18. They are detained alongside children who are U.S. citizens. But since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, most American youth were released while the immigrant youth stayed behind.

Cowlitz County's contract with ICE will end in 60 days. It's unclear where the detained youth will be transferred to.