Immigration Juvenile Justice

ACLU Sues Feds for Locking Immigrant Kids in Jail-Like Facilities Based on Unfounded Gang Accusations

Taylor Walker
Written by Taylor Walker

A class-action lawsuit challenges the federal government’s efforts to incarcerate and deport teens using unproven claims of gang involvement.

Police and immigration officers arrested three teens and transported them across the country to detention facilities in Northern California without notifying the boys’ parents.

The 17-year-olds, who hope to represent a larger class of immigrant youth, lived with their families in Suffolk County, New York, where they were arrested.

ACLU of Northern California, ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project, and Cooley LLP filed the suit against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) late last week.

According to the lawsuit, ICE officials and ORR of working together to detain children far from their homes, families, and lawyers, and to deny them immigration services to which they are entitled—all “under the guise of a ‘crackdown’ on transnational street gangs.”

The arrests and detention are based on “unsubstantiated allegations of gang affiliation,” and flawed criminal history reports, according to the ACLU. Moreover, the federal agencies fail to conduct a sufficient review of the gang affiliation accusations. The feds do not notify the kids or their families of the allegations, or give them a chance to contest the charges.

Federal agents arrested the three teen boys and shipped them to remote detention facilities, where they were held in restrictive conditions that, according to the lawsuit violate the boys’ rights.

The three teens had immigrated to the United States as unaccompanied minors. Legally, ORR is supposed to place unaccompanied kids who cross the border into the care of a family member or sponsor in the US. In fact, the feds had previously released the unaccompanied kids into the custody of their parents.

“The government rightly reunited these kids with their families years ago,” said William S. Freeman, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. “They have dreams and legal claims to remain in the United States, but they’ve been swept up by an administration that prioritizes deportations over truth and justice.”

One of the teens, identified as J.G. was picked up while walking to a deli with a friend because he was wearing a soccer jersey bearing the name of his home country, El Salvador, and “because of who he associated with.” And neither J.G.’s “mother, his stepfather nor his criminal attorney were informed of his whereabouts or of ICE’s plan to detain him and send him to Yolo.” According to ORR, J.G. is “self-admitted MS-13.” No other records support the claim, nor is there any first-person account of such an admission, which is inconsistent with the boy’s continued denial of gang affiliation, according to the suit.

“The police and immigration are arresting kids because they think they look like gang members, but youth are the future of this country and they have a lot to offer,” said J.G. “Don’t judge people by their appearance.”

J.G. was sent to the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility, before being transferred to a staff-secure facility in Tacoma, Washington.

When an unaccompanied minor is detained by the feds, the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act kicks in and requires that the “child shall not be placed in a secure facility absent a determination that the child poses a danger to self or others or had been charged with committing a criminal offense.” Under TVPRA, unaccompanied kids can’t be placed in corrections facilities like juvenile halls and jails.

Another plaintiff, identified as F.E. was picked up while he walked home with a friend after playing soccer. F.E. was arrested on a charge of disorderly conduct. The teen says he was play-fighting with his friend. F.E.’s family was able to bail him out of jail because his alleged crime was only an infraction, but days after his release, F.E. was arrested by the same officer. The officer told F.E. that he was being arrested because “you aren’t legal. I need to give you to immigration. You’ll probably be deported.” F.E. was moved between a facility in Shenandoah, Virginia, to one in Fairfield, California, and then to another ORR facility in Lincolndale New York.

“We’re talking about teens that were picked up for play-fighting with a friend, or for showing pride in their home country of El Salvador. The Office of Refugee Resettlement is accepting wholesale that young immigrants should be kept behind bars because of what they look like or where they come from,” said Steven Kang, Detention Attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.

The third teen, A.H., fled Honduras, where he was suffering extreme abuse and neglect from his father. A month after he entered the US unaccompanied, ORR released A.H. into the care of his mother. “A.H. is eligible to apply for SIJ status upon the issuance of an appropriate state court order (commonly referred to as a “Predicate Order”) finding that (1) he is a dependent of the court; (2) he cannot be reunited with one parent due to abuse, abandonment and/or neglect; and (3) it is not in his best interest to return to his home country,” the complaint states.

ICE officers arrested A.H. two years after he entered the US. The officers said they had an order to arrest him, the sole cause of which was ““probable cause to believe” that A.H. was “removable from the United States … based on … the pendency of ongoing removal proceedings…” When A.H. asked officers why he was being arrested, they told him that he had admitted to being in a gang, an allegation that was untrue, according to the lawsuit.

A.H. was sent to the Yolo juvenile hall. Later, he was transferred to a facility in NY.

“This case centers on the denial of fundamental protections that are at the core of our legal system, and that apply to everyone, regardless of immigration status,” said Martin Schenker, a partner at Cooley LLP. “Children are being denied access to their family and legal counsel and incarcerated in remote locations based on unreliable and unsubstantiated allegations, which amounts to a wholly unacceptable breach of their statutory and constitutional rights.”

Image: Immigration and Customs Enforcement

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