NEW YORK − The New York Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Suffolk County Police Department yesterday for failing to answer public records requests regarding its role in the identification, arrest, and detention by federal authorities of immigrant students accused of gang involvement.
The NYCLU is concerned that cooperation between the Suffolk County Police Department, the South Country Central School District and federal immigration authorities has led to dozens of children being removed from their families, placed in restrictive detention facilities, and into deportation proceedings based on spurious claims of gang affiliation. Despite repeated inquiries, Suffolk police have not responded to Freedom of Information Law requests made by the NYCLU in August 2017.
“Eight months after filing our records requests, New Yorkers still have no answers from the Suffolk police about its role in the Trump administration’s immigration dragnet,” said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman. “During that time ICE rounded up dozens of Long Island teens only to later concede they pose no threat. When immigrant families are being torn apart, lives upended and fear spread, the public deserves answers from Suffolk Police.”
In the summer of 2017 the NYCLU began receiving reports from families that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was targeting their children for removal after school officials had, in coordination with Suffolk police, disciplined students for gang-involvement based on flimsy evidence and vague criteria. Officials at Bellport High School in Suffolk County have suspended students based on questionable evidence of gang-affiliation. The school’s vague dress code policy states that clothing determined by police to be gang-related is prohibited, yet neither the police nor the school informs students what items are prohibited.
One Bellport High School student was suspended without warning when he wore a shirt with a small Chicago Bulls logo. Another student was suspended for displaying an El Salvadoran flag on his Facebook page. NYCLU is aware of at least two students from Bellport High suspended on such grounds who were subsequently detained by ICE.
“Immigrant teens and families on Long Island tell me that they are afraid to go to school or even step outside because they are constantly treated as suspicious,” said Irma Solis, director of the NYCLU Suffolk County chapter. “By keeping their criteria for classifying people as gang members secret, and by sharing information with immigration authorities, local police are creating a climate of fear for immigrant families. Police need to be more transparent and work more responsibly with the community.”
The NYCLU sued the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) in February for indefinitely detaining dozens of immigrant children who had been placed in restrictive detention facilities. The lead plaintiff in the class action suit was suspended after he flashed two middle fingers at another student and school officials accused him of displaying a gang sign. A few months later, he was detained by ICE and incarcerated for over seven months until NYCLU’s lawsuit, despite an immigration judge ruling that he posed no danger to the community or to other students. In documents presented to the judge, ORR said that police had identified him as a gang member and even claimed he had gang tattoos, though he has no tattoos whatsoever and had never had any contact with the police.
“The police have failed to respond to our repeated requests for information, in violation of New York’s public records law,” said Stefanie Coyle, education counsel at the NYCLU. “Parents and students need answers. No one should be subject to suspension on a whim, especially not when that suspension could lead to detention and deportation.”
In addition to Coyle, counsel on this case include NYCLU senior staff attorney Erin Beth Harrist, legal director Arthur Eisenberg and paralegal Andrea Barrientos.