This week, the Trump administration announced it will detain asylum seekers and separate them from their children at the border. A case in California shows how some minors who arrived alone to seek asylum have been put in adult detention. Immigration authorities in California are refusing to release an Afghan asylum seeker from an adult detention center, even though a federal court had determined he is a child. His lawyers say the teenager, who has been held in adult detention for five months, is 17 years old. But ICE used a disputed "pseudoscience" age test based on a dental exam to insist he is over 18. The teen, who uses the name Hamid for privacy and protection, says he fled Afghanistan using a forged passport after the Taliban murdered his father. On Tuesday, Hamid spoke to Democracy Now! in his first phone interview from the Mesa Verde detention center in Bakersfield, California. We speak to his attorney Mariel Villarreal in New York.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, our last segment today. This week, the Trump administration officially announced it will detain asylum seekers and separate them from their children at the border. We turn now to a case that shows how some minors arrived alone at the border to seek asylum, and have been put in adult detention.
In California, immigration authorities are refusing to release an Afghan asylum seeker from an adult detention center after five months, even though a federal court determined he's a child. His lawyers say he's 17 years old. But ICE used a disputed "pseudoscience" age test based on a dental exam to insist he's over 18. The teen says he fled Afghanistan using a forged passport after the Taliban murdered his father.
On Tuesday, the detainee, who uses the name "Hamid" for privacy and protection, spoke to Democracy Now! in his first phone interview from the Mesa Verde detention center, a former prison owned by GEO Group in Bakersfield, California. The young man detained there who spoke Pashto interpreted Hamid's responses, as Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz asked him questions.
HAMID: [translated] He said that I am four-and-a-half months here, and my condition is not good. Every time I am fainting, and I am feeling so scared.
RENÉE FELTZ: Can he describe what it's like being held with adults instead of with young immigrants and young asylum seekers?
HAMID: [translated] He's saying that here, with adults, I feel so scary and so sad. And every time, I feel -- every time I cry with myself.
RENÉE FELTZ: I think he said it was lonely. Can he describe what it's like not to be able to speak to others with his language while he's in detention?
HAMID: [translated] He's saying that there is nobody to speak my language, and only he's talking about me.
RENÉE FELTZ: OK, thank you. Can he say what he's asking for from the United States now?
HAMID: [translated] He said that I want from the judge that they release me from here, because why I came here, my life was in danger. So I want a beautiful and a bright future here.
AMY GOODMAN: That's an Afghan detainee, who uses the name Hamid to protect his identity, speaking to Democracy Now! producer Renée Feltz in a phone interview from the Mesa Verde detention center, where he's been held for five months, with adults, after he sought asylum at the border as an unaccompanied minor.
For more, we're joined by his pro bono attorney Mariel Villarreal, joining us here in New York, with the Pangea Legal Services, an immigrant defense organization based in San Francisco.
So, tell us what's happening here. And what is this science that ICE is saying they're using to determine that children are adults?
MARIEL VILLARREAL: Yeah, I would call it a "pseudoscience." But, essentially, yeah, my client Hamid, using that name to protect his identity and his privacy, fled Afghanistan, serious violence against his family, came to the United States border, turned himself in, asked for asylum and was originally designated a minor. It's what he told CBP, Customs and Border Patrol, officials when he got here. Then they conducted this dental exam, which estimated a seven-year age range for my client, between 16 and 23 years old. And based on that determination, they transferred him out of custody, which -- the care and custody of minors, which is overseen by Office of Refugee Resettlement, and placed him in adult ICE custody, where he's been for five months.
AMY GOODMAN: So, just to be clear, the US government denies climate science accepted by the massive amount of climate scientists, science, in the world, but they use their own science -- and what did they do? They checked his teeth?
MARIEL VILLARREAL: Yeah. So, someone at ORR took X-rays of his teeth and actually sent them over to a doctor at the University of Texas who has a contract with ICE. We've seen other reports that this man has made. And he never examined my client.
AMY GOODMAN: So, ICE has previously been told, in an -- to stop using dental and bone scans to determine the age, because, quote, "Using radiographs of a person's bones or teeth … cannot produce a specific age due to a range of factors affecting an individual's growth. These include normal biological variation, as well as cultural and ethnic differences." That's from a federal audit. The news site Reveal's reporter Aura Bogado has shown that ICE's own internal handbook says dental and bone scans must be used only as, quote, "a last resort." She also reported the San Antonio dentist who does the dental test for ICE, David Senn, never meets the people in person to physically examine their teeth; instead, he uses X-rays and photos?
MARIEL VILLARREAL: That's correct. He never met my client. No holistic examination was ever done, just -- and it appears that actually one of the X-rays was missing. And he remains detained today. It's been five months that he's been in adult detention.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we heard him just say he's scared around older prisoners. He cries a lot. He doesn't feel he has a voice. He's lonely. No one there speaks Pashto. He doesn't have a halal diet. What happens now?
MARIEL VILLARREAL: We have resubmitted a third parole request to ICE. We're awaiting a decision on that. Essentially, he's had a sponsor for the last, I would say, month who's willing to let him live with him and who will financially support him.
Without -- I mean, we've seen how this current Trump administration is responding to asylum seekers. We've seen it with the Central American caravan. We're seeing it now that they're saying they're going to separate families at the border. They're making an example of my client. They think that if no one is watching or doing anything about it, they can do whatever they want. So we're --
AMY GOODMAN: An immigration judge said that he's reviewed the evidence, and Hamid should be released?
MARIEL VILLARREAL: He initially determined that my client was indeed a minor, considering all of the evidence. We have an identity document for him. He considered the dental X-ray exam and found that he was a minor. Two weeks later, the government came up with some evidence that had been sitting in their file for five months, and the judge rescinded that order. So we have another parole request out to ICE, and we're hoping -- you know, we've seen cases like this resolved, but really only when political officials with power and leadership get involved.
AMY GOODMAN: So who are you asking to get involved?
MARIEL VILLARREAL: We're asking Senator Kamala Harris to get involved to put pressure on ICE, to put their feet to the fire and to do something about the fact that there's a child in adult detention. And every day he's -- every time he's gone before an immigration judge -- three different immigration judges at this point -- he has cried on the video teleconference screen to each judge and pleaded with them to let him out. He's terrified of being with adults. He's a small child. I've met with him a couple times in person. He is detained in Bakersfield, which is five hours away from San Francisco, which is where I work. But, yeah, it's awful. And so we're asking -- yeah, we're asking Kamala Harris's office to get involved and to do something about the fact that they've been detaining a minor with adults.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we'll certainly continue to follow Hamid's story. Mariel Villarreal is an attorney representing Hamid pro bono, with Pangea Legal services, an immigrant defense organization based in San Francisco.