In 2017, ICE launched Operation Matador, a program to exchange information between ICE and local police with the goal of identifying unaccompanied minors suspected of MS-13 gang involvement.
The results have been disastrous.
ICE has designated hundreds of unaccompanied minors and dozens of teens in Long Island as “gang associates.” These allegations often rely on unsubstantiated evidence provided by police working in Long Island schools. Supposed evidence of gang affiliation that police have shared with ICE include doodles of country area codes, a drawing of a school mascot, and even, in one case, a teen wearing a sports jersey.
In many cases, ICE arrests teens without warning, spiriting them away out of state and holding them in facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away, with little or no notice to their families. Authorities frequently detain children without any independent review of the allegations and without any opportunity for the teens to challenge the underlying evidence being used against them.
When paper-thin allegations are brought into the light and challenged in court, the results are often embarrassing for ICE and the Suffolk Police Department. In February of last year, the NYCLU filed a federal class action lawsuit against the Trump administration over the prolonged detention of immigrant children, many of whom were held as the result of Operation Matador.
We want to know how the department and the DA’s office are working with the Trump administration to deport young immigrant New Yorkers.
The lead plaintiff in the lawsuit is a teen who was held by immigration officials for seven months on the basis of supposed gang apparel and gang tattoos, though he has no tattoos whatsoever. The teen had been identified to Suffolk police by his school. After our lawsuit was filed, the teen was released from custody.
And just this week, Newsday reported that judges have freed more than 30 young people accused of gang ties by ICE, most of them from Long Island. Marty Schenker, our co-counsel in a class action lawsuit against ICE related to the detention of these teenagers, told the paper that nine times out of 10, when these youths were allowed to challenge the evidence against them, they were released by a judge.
Now, the New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union are suing to determine what role the Suffolk County Police Department, the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, and the Suffolk County District Attorney have in creating this mess. Specifically, we want to know how the department and the DA’s office are working with the Trump administration to deport young immigrant New Yorkers.
Our lawsuit demands that the DOJ release information about its grant program for local police and prosecutors targeting immigrant children with purported gang affiliations. The DOJ announced the multi-million-dollar gang recruitment suppression grant program in October 2018. This spring, Suffolk County was awarded $1.2 million as part of the initiative.
In particular, we’re looking for records related to submissions by local and state law enforcement agencies seeking funds and communications between the DOJ and these agencies. The ACLU filed a request for this information last year, but the DOJ never fulfilled the request, prompting the lawsuit.
The DOJ grant program is just an extension of previous Trump administration tactics to vilify and detain immigrant youth under the guise of gang prevention. The program helps turn schools, which should be safe and welcoming environments, into hotspots for anti-immigrant animus in which students are distrustful and fearful of one another and school officials.
We need transparency to ensure that law-enforcement and prosecutorial practices in Suffolk County do not violate children’s rights, or worse, place them or their families in danger of arrest or deportation.