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Immigrant says she was falsely accused, held on gang accusation

A teenage girl who attended Brentwood High School and wishes to remain unidentified, spoke with News 12 Long Island on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, about being accused of being an MS-13 gang member, facing possible deportation and being jailed for a month before her release after her attorney intervened. Credit: News 12 Long Island

A Salvadoran immigrant from Brentwood and her lawyer said she was detained by immigration authorities for more than a month in New Jersey as she was falsely accused of being an associate of the violent MS-13 gang that local and federal law enforcement authorities are working to dismantle.

An immigration judge in Manhattan ordered the 18-year-old released July 24, pending her application for permanent legal residency. She came to the United States as an unaccompanied minor in fall 2015, she said.

The young woman, who spoke under condition of anonymity because she fears repercussions, said she is very upset and doesn’t know if she wants to return to school and continue living in Brentwood as she doesn’t want any more problems with MS-13 members, the police or immigration agents.

“I was very surprised when they came to get me” and arrested her at home, said the woman, formerly a 10th-grader in Brentwood schools. “It’s an injustice, because they didn’t have any proof,” she said in Spanish. “Some are paying for the sins of others.”

She said a former boyfriend had been accused of gang involvement, but she had not known about it. She declined to name him.

Her lawyer, Bryan Johnson, whose office is in Bay Shore, said her arrest and detention fit a recent pattern of cases in which others were mislabeled as gang members and faced deportation — particularly as the Suffolk County Police Department, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its investigative arm, known as Homeland Security Investigations, have cooperated in removing from the country gang associates who escape prosecution.

Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini on Tuesday called those allegations “ridiculous” and said his department is methodical and professional in how it is pursuing the gang and identifying its members.

ICE did not respond to a request for comment. A June 22 agency memorandum obtained by Newsday showed it had considered the woman “an associate of MS-13” based on information provided by Suffolk police that she had “been in the presence of confirmed MS-13 members on well more than four occasions.”

Members of MS-13, a transnational crime syndicate with roots in El Salvador, have been linked to a rash of violent crimes on Long Island, including 12 killings of mostly young people in the Brentwood and Central Islip areas since 2016. President Donald Trump came to Brentwood on July 28 to stress the administration’s fight against the gang.

At the same time, advocates, immigrants and their lawyers have denounced cases in which immigrant teens were characterized as gang members on what they say was flimsy evidence.

“This is a cowboy operation by ICE, HSI and Suffolk County police,” Johnson said. “They are deciding that their way of eradicating MS-13 is just to eradicate Central Americans from Brentwood, particularly young immigrants that came recently.”

Johnson said police may be sending children and minors back to face the gangs from which they were fleeing when they left their native countries, with many crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally as unaccompanied minors to get away. Long Island has been one of the top locations in the nation for resettlement of those migrants.

Sini defended what he said is his department’s intelligence-led policing to counter the gang and to cooperate with federal agencies.

The department has “a robust policy” to identify gang members and bring “large federal prosecutions against known MS-13 gang members,” he said. “And when we are not in the position to bring a significant criminal case, whether locally or federally, we’ll work with” federal officials “to target gang members for detention and deportation.”

Sini added, “This strategy is working and we are going to continue” because it protects the very immigrants who are the first victims of the gang on Long Island.

The civil rights advocacy group LatinoJustice and the New York Civil Liberties Union disclosed last week their filing of wide-ranging information requests from police and the South Country school district regarding such enforcement actions, particularly in relation to school suspensions and police involvement related to gang accusations. At least three immigrant teenagers in that district said they were falsely accused of gang involvement earlier this year and were suspended.

Irma Solis, director of the NYCLU’s Suffolk County Chapter, said the groups’ concerns are about due process, as those young people accused of gang links could be deported before they have a chance to defend themselves.

“What we have been seeing have been kids being labeled as gang members with very little evidence,” Solis said. “Under normal circumstances, if they were arrested for actually committing a crime . . . they would have had their day in court.”

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