A Manhattan federal judge on Friday ordered the release from immigration custody of an undocumented 16-year-old Honduran boy after a year separated from his Brentwood mother, calling his detention for suspected gang affiliation in Suffolk County a “pretext.”
Manhattan U.S. District Judge John Keenan granted a habeas corpus petition for the boy, identified by the initials EHE, who was being held by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a federal agency that has been under fire for its detention policies.
Keenan disputed claims the boy might be dangerous, explaining that he was stopped by Suffolk police last May while riding a bicycle and classified as a “likely” MS-13 gang member based on police observations of his “clothing and accessories” and association with confirmed gang members.
“In and of themselves, EHE’s choices of wardrobe and associates do not constitute criminal offenses, and EHE has not been charged with one,” Keenan wrote. “The complete absence of hard evidence of EHE’s affiliation with MS-13 or any other gang generates the inference that EHE’s arrest was merely a pretext for placing him in detention.”
The judge said the boy spent the last year at facilities in California, Oregon and Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County, in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is supposed to place unaccompanied immigrant minors in secure settings with sponsors while their immigration cases proceed.
But the agency has been under fire for prolonged detention policies that advocates say have gotten worse since the Trump administration took office. The office is the subject of class action lawsuits in three states, including one in New York brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union.
In EHE’s case, Keenan said, the boy should not have been held in the first place because he had been living with his mother and sisters in Brentwood since 2015, and didn’t meet the definition of an “unaccompanied” minor.
In addition, the judge said, the boy’s constitutional rights were violated because he wasn’t a danger and the certification of his mother as a suitable sponsor had been “inordinately and inexplicably” delayed.
“This case implicates the right to family integrity,” Keenan wrote.
A spokesman for the government and a lawyer for EHE and his mother, Gloria Escobar Maldonado, declined to comment. But Paige Austin, a staff attorney with the NYCLU, said EHE’s case was an example of the government practices that the class action suits are trying to end.
“The judge recognized that there wasn’t enough evidence,” she said. “He had been separated from his mom for 11 months. The government is breaking the law by subjecting kids to prolonged and indefinite detention.”