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Federal judge orders hearings for teens targeted for deportation

Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney who represents F.E.,

Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney who represents F.E., in his Bay Shore office on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Credit: James Carbone

A federal judge in California has ordered government agencies to present evidence bolstering the arrest and detainment of immigrant minors from Long Island targeted for deportation based on alleged involvement with MS-13 — or to otherwise release them back to their families.

Three teenagers from Brentwood are the primary plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California against federal agencies involved in their arrest and detention, as those young immigrants were at the time being held in secure facilities in that state.

The judge’s order issued Monday considered questions of due process in connection to the so-called Operation Matador, which since the spring was launched on Long Island by the Homeland Security Investigations arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to assist local law enforcement in the push against the criminal street gang with ties to El Salvador. The operation sought to identify, arrest, detain and remove from the country gang members and associates who were not being brought up on state or federal criminal charges.

From early on, advocacy groups contended the teens were being swept up by immigration agents over unfounded accusations of gang affiliation. An ICE spokesperson said Wednesday the agency “is currently reviewing the decision.”

U.S. District Court Justice Vince Chhabria ruled that those accused should have a chance to review and contest the evidence on whether their behavior warranted their arrest.

“The issue in this case is not whether federal agents may arrest and detain undocumented minors who truly are members of dangerous criminal gangs,” the order stated in part. “...But there is no reason to deny these minors protections that noncitizens typically get after having been released on bond or parole. The minors and their sponsors have the right to participate in a prompt hearing before an immigration judge in which the government’s evidence of changed circumstances is put to the test.”

The judge ordered each of the detained minors be given a hearing where the government would be expected to present evidence as to why they’re deemed “a danger to the community.” Going forward, the judge asks for the government to offer those hearings within seven days of any other minors’ arrests and to provide “prompt notice” to attorneys filing the class action.

“These boys were torn from their families. The Trump administration wrongfully denied them any opportunity to respond to the charges against them, and the court’s order recognizes their rights to a fair and impartial hearing when they are threatened with deprivation of their liberty,” said Julia Harumi Mass, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

One of the minors, going by the initials F.E. in the suit, had his hearing Tuesday and was released to his mom in Brentwood. Two other teens, identified as A.H. and J.G., are awaiting hearings, which under the order must take place by Nov. 29.

Their legal advocates see the order as a victory, pending a full review of the legal claims.

“It means that, finally, the Suffolk County police, HSI and the Trump administration will no longer be able to arrest [the immigrant minors] in the street and throw them in jail, that they have to actually have evidence, instead of nothing but conclusory allegations,” said Bryan Johnson, an immigration attorney with an office in Bay Shore who represents F.E.

The suit names U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions as well as the Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The Suffolk County Police Department is not named in the suit, but it’s been criticized by lawyers and advocates over its involvement in arresting and handing over immigrant children to detention. A representative did not respond to a request for comment.

“F.E.” said Wednesday that he was happy to be back home after about five months in detention. He denied gang involvement.

“I knew they were being unfair with what they were doing to me,” he said in Spanish, “and I was asking my dear God to touch their hearts and for them to realize that I was not doing bad things.”

He was looking forward to his favorite holiday meal — rice with grilled meat, Salvadoran radish salsa and mashed potatoes.

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