NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union and the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit today to compel the Department of Justice to release information about its grant program for local police and prosecutors targeting immigrant children with purported gang affiliations. Awards include $1.2 million to Suffolk County, New York.
The Department of Justice announced the multi-million-dollar gang recruitment suppression grant program in June 2018, despite litigation and widespread criticism over the Trump administration’s targeting of immigrant children for arrest and prolonged detention based on vague allegations of gang involvement. The ACLU originally sought records concerning the grant via an October 2018 Freedom of Information Act request, which the Department of Justice has yet to fulfill.
“This grant program is just an extension of previous Trump administration tactics to vilify and sweep up immigrant teens under the guise of gang prevention,” said JP Perry, Skadden Fellow with the New York Civil Liberties Union. “ICE has arrested dozens of immigrant children from Long Island and detained them thousands of miles from home on the basis of dubious gang allegations provided by police. Even in the face of litigation and public criticism, the administration continues to incentivize police to offer up more of the same.”
In 2017 ICE launched Operation Matador, a program to exchange information between ICE and local police seeking to identify unaccompanied minors suspected of MS-13 gang involvement. Often relying on unsubstantiated evidence provided by police or school resource officers working in Long Island Schools, ICE has designated immigrant teens as “gang associates.” Supposed evidence of gang affiliation that police have shared with ICE include doodles of country area codes and even, in one case, a sports jersey.
As a result of Operation Matador, ICE has detained hundreds of unaccompanied minors, including dozens of students from high schools in Suffolk County. In many cases, ICE arrested teens without warning, transporting some out of state and holding them in facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away, with little or no notice to their families. Authorities frequently detained children without meaningful review of the allegations and without an opportunity to review or challenge evidence.
The ACLU’s October 2018 Freedom of Information Act request sought records related to submissions by law enforcement agencies seeking funds, communications between the Department of Justice and these agencies, the evaluation of applications, and information the department relied on to support its preference for a law-enforcement and prosecutorial approach. The Department of Justice indicated in December that it would soon provide an initial release of documents to the ACLU, yet it provided none and failed to respond to further inquiries.
“The information the ACLU seeks is needed to provide the public with accurate information about the government’s treatment of unaccompanied immigrant youth, its collaboration with local law enforcement to further immigration enforcement, and the direction of millions of dollars in juvenile justice funds,” said Sarah Hinger, senior staff attorney with the ACLU. “Despite significant public concern with this administration’s treatment of immigrants and particularly immigrant youth, the public knows little about this grant program and its potential to perpetuate the mistreatment of immigrant youth.”
In February 2018 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. 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.
In response to outcry in the wake of Operation Matador, NYCLU joined the Huntington School District and Long Island residents in calling for a memorandum of understanding with Suffolk police that would both reduce and regulate the role of police officers in schools. Schools have increasingly relied on police to manage student discipline in place of trained professionals like social workers and counselors, triggering more interactions between students and the criminal legal system.
“Our schools should be safe, supportive environments, not hotspots for the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda,” said Irma Solis, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter. “We need transparency to ensure that law enforcement and prosecutorial practices in Suffolk County do not violate children’s rights, or worse, place them in danger.”
In addition to Perry, NYCLU Staff Attorney Amy Belsher, Legal Director Christopher Dunn, and Staff Attorney Antony Gemmell are counsel in the case. In addition to Hinger, Joshua David Riegel, the Marvin M. Karpatkin Fellow with the ACLU, also is co-counsel.