An illegal immigrant girl who sued demanding a right to an abortion in the U.S. is 19, not 17 as she originally claimed, the government said Tuesday — upending her bid to try to force the government to facilitate termination of her pregnancy.
It was the latest twist in a groundbreaking case playing out in federal courts in Washington, where immigrant rights advocates are pushing the boundaries of abortion rights, and the Trump administration and some Republican-led states are pushing back.
Security analysts said the revelation is part of a larger problem of young adult illegal immigrants lying about their ages when they come to the U.S., hoping to take advantage of more relaxed policies governing minors, who are treated to taxpayer-funded shelters and classrooms, or placed with sponsors while they go through a yearslong deportation process.
“They use this as a way to get into the United States and live here for years after having gamed the system this way,” said Jessica Vaughan, policy studies director for the Center for Immigration Studies.
Ms. Vaughan said the Homeland Security Department has been overwhelmed by the surge of unaccompanied alien children in the past few years and it isn’t doing thorough checks on those who are detained at the border.
In the abortion case, the 19-year-old woman, known in court documents as “Jane Roe,” claimed she was 17 when she was arrested. She maintained that stance during her time in government custody, dating back to November.
She said a government-provided doctor earlier this month informed her she was pregnant, and she is now in her second trimester.
“I do not want to be forced to carry a pregnancy to term against my will,” Ms. Roe said in her Dec. 15 sworn court filing, which was translated for her.
But the government said it discovered Tuesday — weeks after Ms. Roe was arrested and had been in custody — that she was actually 19 — meaning she was never eligible to be part of the more lenient UAC program and should be quickly deported as a new border crosser.
“The determination was made after [the Office of Refugee Resettlement] obtained a copy of Ms. Roe’s certificate of birth from her home country. Accordingly, the office is transferring custody of Ms. Roe to the Department of Homeland Security … as an adult,” the government’s attorneys said.
They said she was going to be handed over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which was going to process and then quickly release her from custody on her own recognizance.
“That process has not quite concluded, but it should conclude very soon,” the government said, adding it could happen later Tuesday.
Ms. Roe’s attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union declined to comment Tuesday afternoon.
Under current interpretation of federal law and court cases, illegal immigrants younger than 18 traveling without their parents who are caught at the border are to be quickly processed by Homeland Security and released to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is a division of the Health and Human Services Department.
The office is supposed to try to connect them with sponsors to live with in the U.S. while awaiting immigration court proceedings. They are held in government-run shelters while awaiting sponsors.
As the numbers of unaccompanied children climbed again in recent months, the ACLU said there is an epidemic of pregnant girls who want abortions. The organization has gone to court in two jurisdictions demanding access.
The Trump administration, though, says federal law prohibits agencies from spending money to facilitate elective abortions and has fought the ACLU.
A U.S. district judge already cleared one 17-year-old girl for an abortion last month and this week ordered the government to assist Ms. Roe and a third illegal immigrant in getting abortions.
The Trump administration has asked both a circuit court of appeals and the Supreme Court to step in — but then announced Tuesday that the case may be moot because of the age issue.
The appeals court judges demanded to know Tuesday how long it would take to send her from the shelter to Homeland Security and when after that she would be allowed to obtain an abortion.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said it allows illegal immigrants in its custody to obtain abortions, but it must be at the migrant’s own cost if the abortion is elective.
The Justice Department declined to comment Tuesday on whether the woman would face penalties for lying under oath to the court.
Homeland Security didn’t respond to requests for comment about how Ms. Roe managed to mislead them about her age.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement wasn’t able to say what sorts of checks it did in the case of Ms. Roe but provided a policy document detailing the difficulties, including missing or fraudulent documents and being confused by the physical appearance or diminished mental capacity of some migrants.
“They’re overwhelmed,” Ms. Vaughan said. “I believe under the previous administration it wasn’t very important to them to find out whether the person was telling the truth about their age. They were more interested in releasing people as quickly as possible.”
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