From American Detention Centers to Jail

“As 17-year-olds they were asylum seekers. On their 18th birthdays they became criminals” Editorial Board, The New York Times

ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post with Answer Key

Photo- The Cut


Excerpt:  Coming of Age in American Detention-The New York Times Editorial Board

In the fall of 2017, Wilmer Ramirez had reason to be hopeful. After he trekked from Guatemala and spent several months in a youth migrant shelter in Arizona, his application for ‘special immigrant juvenile status,’ a designation that would make him eligible for lawful permanent residency, was pending. What’s more, a family in Pennsylvania had agreed to sponsor him, meaning they would submit themselves to the Office of Refugee Resettlement for approval and take him in once they were approved. The only thing between him and freedom, then, was a little more paperwork. But when he turned 18, federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials came to the shelter, placed him in handcuffs, and carted him off to a nearby jail.

He hadn’t done anything wrong. The officials were just following the rules. When children become adults, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is part of the Department of Health and Human Services, turns them over to the Department of Homeland Security, which places them in ‘adult detention,’ a term that usually means county jail.

Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but roughly 1,000 18-year-olds were sent to such detentions in 2017, according to Mr. Ramirez’s lawyers, who have filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the practice.

The transfer from shelter to jail can be abrupt; it often happens at midnight on detainees’ 18th birthday and typically cuts them off from any relationships they might have established, including with caseworkers and counselors.

There are many things wrong with this policy. There is no dark magic that turns teenagers into criminals on their 18th birthday, even if they were born outside the United States. Given the damage that incarceration can do to young adults, every alternative should be pursued before turning teenage asylum seekers over to adult detention.

And, as the Ramirez lawsuit indicates, the procedure itself may be illegal. Federal law requires ICE to place children and teenagers in the least restrictive setting possible, even after they turn 18…Yearlong stays are not uncommon, and cases of 500 days or more have been reported. As those numbers grow, the entire shelter system (some 100 facilities scattered across the country) is nearing capacity.

The best of those shelters may feel like havens to children who fled extreme poverty or violence, and faced incredible risks to make it across the border.

The worst shelters are dens of abuse and neglect. At either end of the spectrum, the children themselves face tedium, a lack of freedom and profound uncertainty, especially when their 18th birthday approaches… Health and Human Services officials have said that the longer stays are an unfortunate but inevitable byproduct of improved safety precautions: It takes time to verify that prospective sponsors are who they claim to be, and to ensure that these already vulnerable and traumatized minors won’t be subjected to abuse once they leave the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

That argument withers under scrutiny. Yes, the threat of trafficking is real, and protections are needed to guard against it. But it’s difficult to see how incarcerating teenagers for the crime of turning 18 protects them more than, say, releasing them to a willing sponsor who has cleared a basic but thorough background check…They deserve as much protection and support as teenagers born in this country — or in any other. We have the ways and means to provide that protection and support. We just need the will and the decency.”


ESL Voices Lesson Plan for this post

NOTE: Lessons can also be used with native English speakers.

Level: Intermediate – Advanced

Language Skills: Reading, writing, and speaking. Vocabulary and grammar activities are included.

Time: Approximately 2 hours.

Materials: Student handout (from this lesson) and access to news article.

Objective: Students will read and discuss the article
with a focus on improving reading comprehension and improving oral skills. At the end of the lesson students will express their personal views on the topic through group work and writing.

I. Pre-Reading Activities

 Predictions: Using a Pre-reading Organizer

Directions:  Ask students to examine the title of the post and of the actual article they are about to read. Then, have them  examine the photos. Ask students to write a paragraph describing what they think this article will discuss. Students can use a Pre-reading organizer for assistance.

Pre-reading chart by J. Swann


II. While Reading Activities

Word Inference

Directions: Students are to infer the meanings of the words in bold taken from the article. They may use a dictionary, thesaurus, and Word Chart for assistance.

  1. Many young children were asylum seekers.
  2. Wilmer Ramirez trekked from his home in Guatemala.
  3. Officials are angling to pull out of longstanding judicial agreements.
  4. Ramirez helps other 18-year-olds over their incarceration.
  5. Many of the minors are traumatized by the experience.
  6. There should be a law against the indefinite detention of migrant children.
  7. They deserve as much protection and support as teenagers born in this country.
  8. Many of the minors are traumatized by the experience.
  9. That argument withers under scrutiny.
  10. Stricter requirements have succeeded in scaring off prospective sponsors.

Word Map Education Oasis


Reading Comprehension

True /False/NA-Statements

Directions: Review the following statements from the reading.  If  a statement is true they mark it T. If the statement is  not applicable, they mark it NA. If the statement is false they  mark  it F and provide the correct answer. 

  1. Wilmer Ramirez was from Cuba.
  2. He spent several months in a youth migrant shelter in Boston.
  3. A family in Pennsylvania had agreed to sponsor him.
  4. When Ramirez turned 18, he was placed in a nearby jail.
  5. He stole from a store in the neighborhood.
  6. Approximately 1,000  5-year-olds were sent to such detentions in 2017.
  7. According to the article, the number of migrant children who face jail as they ‘age out’ of youth shelters is climbing.
  8. Ramirez attended college in Boston MA.
  9. The threat of trafficking is real, and protections are needed to guard against it.
  10. More than 200,000 migrant children have entered the United States in the past six years.

Grammar Focus: Word -Recognition

Directions: Students choose the correct word to complete the sentences taken from the article. They are to choose from the options presented.

Stricter requirements have/has succeeded in/on scaring off/under prospective sponsors, many out/of whom/who are undocumented themselves/theirselves or who have undocumented relatives. But there/their fear does not necessarily speak to/too their fitness as guardians.

There/Their are other options, in/out any case: Immigration advocates, including Mr. Ramirez’s lawyers, has/have proposed releasing teenagers like Mr. Ramirez to/two sponsors, with ankle monitors if need be, or to/too group homes or shelters for/four young adults.

III. Post Reading Activities

Graphic Organizers: Finding The Main Idea

Directions:  Have students use this advanced organizer from Enchanted Learning to assist them with  discussing  or writing about  the main points from the article.

Topic organizer. By Enchanted Learning


Discussion for Comprehension /Writing

Ask/Answer  Questions

Directions:  Place students in groups and have each group list 3  questions they would like to pursue in relation to  the article. Have groups exchange questions. Each group tries to answer the questions listed. All responses are shared as a class.

1-Minute Free Writing Exercise

Directions: Allow students 1 minute to write down one new idea they’ve learned from the reading. Ask them to write down one thing they did not understand in the reading.  Review the responses as a class. Note: For the lower levels allow more time for this writing activity.