At least nine immigrant minors from Long Island targeted for deportation by federal officials based on alleged involvement with MS-13 were released Wednesday, a deadline set by a federal judge in California, their attorneys said.
The minors, who had been detained around the country, were released by immigration judges after hearings held mostly in Manhattan on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to attorneys representing the minors.
Their release came after a class-action lawsuit was filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California in which three teens from Brentwood were listed as primary plaintiffs. The suit named as defendants federal agencies involved in the arrest and detention of the teens and others who, at that time, were being held in secure facilities in that state.
The judge ordered each of the detained minors be given a hearing where the government would show evidence of why they were deemed “a danger to the community.”
“I’m thrilled,” said Martha Arce, a Hempstead attorney representing a 16-year-old boy from Central Islip who was picked up by immigration officials in June and ordered released Wednesday. “I think the judge was fair and really followed the guidelines of the judge in California.”
Arce said the case against her client was weak. Investigators said he had a notebook with the number 503 written inside, known to be the calling code for El Salvador and adopted as a gang symbol. He had also gotten into a fight at his high school where he suffered a black eye and was spotted talking to known gang members, she said.
But, Arce said no one came forward to testify at his Manhattan hearing about his gang activity and he had no criminal record. “According to the allegations, that was a way to prove he was a gang member,” Arce said. “That’s what makes it even tougher and more incredible to believe. That children can be detained just because they heard some person say something.”
The California federal judge’s order, issued Nov. 20, addressed the question of due process in connection to the so-called Operation Matador, launched last spring on Long Island by the Homeland Security Investigations arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to assist local law enforcement in their anti-gang initiative.
“Gang violence is unacceptable and we know MS-13 is a bad gang. Our whole point is we don’t make communities safer by violating the constitution,” said Martin Schenker, an attorney working with the ACLU on the federal lawsuit. “Mere suspicions based on flimsy evidence is no basis to conclude that someone is a member of MS-13”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials did not return a request for comment.