The ACLU has filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the Trump administration is wrongly accusing young illegal immigrants of gang affiliations as a way to short-circuit their rights and force them into speedy deportations.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in California, opens yet another legal front against President Trump’s goal of stepped-up immigration enforcement, with advocates hoping to blunt a new effort by Homeland Security to find and deport some of the Central Americans who jumped the border during the Obama era.
Immigrant-rights advocates said the government has started to fabricate broad accusations of gang membership or affiliation to justify sweeping enforcement actions, nabbing people who the advocates say deserve protection and legal status, not criminal treatment and deportation.
“We’re talking about teens who were picked up for play-fighting with a friend, or for showing pride in their home country of El Salvador,” said Stephen Kang, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, which is handling the case on behalf of a handful of teenage illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. during the UAC surge under President Obama.
More than 100,000 UAC, or Unaccompanied Alien Children, have surged into the U.S. over the last five years, pushed from home by a complex series of causes and enticed here by lax enforcement of immigration laws.
The Trump administration, trying to head off a new surge, announced a major enforcement action last month that resulted in the arrest of 120 UACs, and 73 family members who came under Mr. Obama but who have gone through court, been ordered deported, yet are ignoring those orders.
The UACs targeted for arrest had all turned 18 or had criminal histories or suspected gang ties, ICE said.
The ACLU said the government is stretching the definition of gang ties in order to draw a broader dragnet.
Lawyers singled out three juveniles who were each arrested in Suffolk County, New York, and eventually turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is pursuing deportation cases.
One case involved a 17-year-old who jumped the border in 2015, and was placed with his mother in Brentwood, New York. He was quickly expelled from high school for cutting classes, and went on to rack up several trespassing charges, the lawsuit admits.
But the lawyers say the teen, identified by initials J.G. was harassed by local police who repeatedly stopped him and finally, in April, arrested him and accused him of being in a gang and being involved in a murder. The lawsuit says the detectives cited his clothing and the people he was with as evidence.
He eventually pleaded guilty to lying about his identity.
The government, according to court documents, says he admitted to being a member of MS-13, hangs around MS-13 areas, had been identified by others as a gang member, and had been seen displaying gang signs or symbols.
J.G. denies any gang members, the lawsuit says.
“The police and immigration agents 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,” the teen said in a statement released by the ACLU. “Don’t judge people by their appearance.”
ICE officials wouldn’t couldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit.
But one agency official said they designate someone a gang member if he or she “shares a gang’s identity and its purpose of engaging in criminal activity.” Some of the criteria include tattoos symbolizing membership, hanging out in gang territory, flashing or wearing gang signs or symbols, being repeatedly arrested in the company of known gang members or being identified by “a reliable source” as being in a gang.
A gang affiliate, meanwhile, is someone who is “an associate” of gang members and shares the gang’s values, but hasn’t been formally initiated.
In addition to the UAC case, an illegal immigrant Dreamer, Daniel Ramirez Medina, is fighting in federal court in Washington state against ICE accusations that he has gang ties.
In that case, ICE came to arrest his convicted felon father in February on an outstanding deportation order. When they arrived they also arrested Mr. Ramirez, who had been in the U.S. under protection of President Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty for Dreamers, known as DACA.
Authorities said Mr. Ramirez admitted to gang ties, which disqualified him from DACA, so they revoked his permits.
Mr. Ramirez, though, says the agents who arrested him were overzealous and misconstrued his statements to read gang ties into what he said.
He’s suing the agents individually, as well as Homeland Security more broadly, claiming he has a right to DACA.