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NYCLU files suit to get federal records in detention of immigrant teens

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Thursday to require the Office of Refugee Resettlement to release records connected to an anti-gang initiative that has led to the detention and arrest of nearly 400 Long Islanders since 2017.

The NYCLU suit seeks details about Operation Matador, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative to pursue gang members for removal from the country. The push followed a burst of violence by alleged members of the MS-13 street gang, but advocates contend immigrant teens were wrongly accused of gang ties.

As of December 2018, ICE has detained about 170 unaccompanied immigrant youth under Operation Matador, according to NYCLU.

Antony Gemmell, staff attorney for the NYCLU, said the program’s management and intentions remained shrouded in secrecy.

“The public deserves to know more about ORR’s role in Operation Matador,” Gemmell said. “Resources designated for providing basic care to undocumented children are instead being used to target immigrant youth and families, many of whom fled their home countries to escape violence and persecution.”

The NYCLU has filed similar lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests to obtain records pertaining to Operation Matador, and a related Justice Department grant program, but ICE has yet to turn over documents, the nonprofit said.

The most recent suit seeks information about the role of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the federal agency responsible for holding unaccompanied minors, in transmitting sensitive information about the children in their care to law enforcement.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement did not respond to a request for comment.

A Justice Department grant program that provides funding for Operation Matador requires law enforcement agencies to obtain information from ORR about the unaccompanied immigrant children in its care, the suit contends. The NYCLU contends that federal officials are able to designate any immigrant child as a “gang associate” based on indiscriminate criteria. 

In 2017, ICE launched Operation Matador to exchange information between ICE and local police seeking to identify unaccompanied minors suspected of MS-13 gang involvement.

The enforcement push came after a rash of crimes connected to the MS-13 gang on Long Island — including the killings of Nisa Mickens, 15, and Kayla Cuevas, 16, both of Brentwood, who were brutally slain by alleged gang members in September 2016.

Federal immigration agents, with intelligence from Nassau and Suffolk police and other partners, began arresting Long Island teens with Central American roots — largely unaccompanied minors — and flying them to detention centers thousands of miles away, often leaving their families panicked, advocates say.

ICE insists the detained teens are “confirmed” gang members. But jail officials charged with housing the teens objected, saying they were not being shown evidence of gang ties that would justify holding them.

"Operation Matador sends a clear message to violent street gangs that there are consequences for their actions,” then-ICE Deputy Director Thomas Homan said in a statement in 2018.

Nassau County had 210 Operation Matador arrests while Suffolk County made 177, according to ICE data from 2018. Federal officials have said that the majority of youths detained under the program were members of MS-13.

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