An immigrant minor from Long Island who was targeted for deportation because of alleged ties to the MS-13 gang was back home in Central Islip on Thursday, a day after an immigration judge in Manhattan ruled that federal officials did not have enough evidence to keep him in custody.
“I’m very happy because I’m back home with my mother,” the 16-year-old said in an interview. “It was very difficult. I wasn’t near my mom and I really missed her and my family.”
He was picked up in June by immigration officials and held at a children’s center in Dobbs Ferry until the judge on Wednesday ordered that he be freed. He got home on Thursday afternoon.
The teen, who is from El Salvador and came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor in December 2015, denied any connection to the violent transnational gang. Newsday agreed to identify him by his initials, M.Z., not his full name.
He was one of 33 minors across the country who had been detained because of suspected gang connections. They were released by immigration judges after hearings held on Tuesday and Wednesday, according to attorneys representing the minors.
As many as 13 in New York have been released so far, according to attorneys who have represented them.
M.Z. said he was walking home from school one day in early June when immigration officials confronted him about a block from his front door. He said they asked him whether he had any identification papers.
He said he was awaiting a court proceeding as part of his special immigrant juveniles status, a program for kids who have been abused, abandoned or neglected and were seeking lawful permanent status.
The teen said the immigration officials labeled him as a gang member.
“It makes me feel bad. I was never a member of a gang. I would never do that,” M.Z. said.
On Long Island, he was among those swept up in Operation Matador, launched last spring by the Homeland Security Investigations arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to assist local law enforcement in their anti-gang initiative.
In August, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a class-action lawsuit related to apprehensions of immigrant minors, naming as primary plaintiffs three Brentwood teens then held in the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodland, California.
The suit named as defendants federal agencies involved in the arrests and detentions of the minors and others who, at that time, were being held in secure facilities in that state. On Nov. 20, a federal judge in California ordered the detainees be given hearings by Wednesday and released unless the government could show why they should continue to be held.
Thursday, as M.Z. waited for his mother to return home from her job as a housekeeper, he described how he spent his days at the children’s facility: playing soccer or basketball and attending classes with other minors who were swept up in the enforcement action.
He said he was allowed to call his mother twice a week — talks in which he would tell her he missed her, while she reassured him she was doing what she could to bring him home.
M.Z., who has three sisters in El Salvador, said some days were fine while others were sad, as he missed his mother’s home cooking.
At Wednesday’s hearing in lower Manhattan, the judge determined there wasn’t enough evidence to hold him, and he was allowed to go home while he tries to secure his residency.
“Any allegation was fair game to pick them up,” Martha Arce, the Hempstead attorney who represented M.Z., said of the enforcement action. “They thought they could get away with it, and they did for a couple of months. Now they can no longer do that.”
The teenager, whose next immigration status hearing is scheduled for January, said he is baffled about why he was taken into custody.
“It’s unjust. I haven’t done anything; I don’t know why they grabbed me. I think they made a mistake,” he said. “I came here to study. To make something of myself.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials did not return a request for comment.