For unaccompanied minors, countdown to 18th birthday is filled with fear and dread

(CNN)On your 18th birthday, immigration officials will come for you, a lawyer explained. You will be shackled, you will be placed in an orange jumpsuit, and you will be taken to jail. "But I need you to know you are not a criminal."

This is how Allison Norris, toll litigation staff attorney at Americans for Immigrant Justice, prepares her teenage clients in federal migrant detention shelters who are nearing age 18 without the prospects of a suitable sponsor to whom they can be released.
One of these clients is Veronica, whose name has been changed to protect her identity for fear of retribution. At age 17, she arrived in the United States alone, fleeing sexual predators in El Salvador.
Between the time Veronica arrived and when she turned 18, just over four months, Norris says, she attempted to find a sponsor. But none of the family friends who applied met the extensive list of requirements of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in order for her to be released from the shelter for migrant children in South Florida where she was detained.
On her 18th birthday, she woke up scared, wondering what would happen to her, Veronica said. Norris' detailed warnings had not exactly calmed her down.
At 8 a.m. on her birthday, immigration officials arrived at the shelter. She was placed in ankle shackles and put in a "very cold room" for hours before being taken into adult detention, Veronica said.
In the months that followed, Veronica describes feeling depressed, crying every day and losing hope. Because she wasn't serving a specific sentence, she had no idea how long she'd spend in detention.
With hours to fill in a cell she shared with three older women, she relived in her mind the attacks she suffered in El Salvador.
"I didn't know what was worse: to have died in El Salvador or to be locked up," she said.
Veronica is part of a group of kids known as ORR age-outs. When unaccompanied minors arrive in the United States, they are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, part of the US Department of Health and Human Services, a