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LI immigrant teens detained in California sue U.S. government

The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodland,

The Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in Woodland, California, which houses up to 30 immigrant children. The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a suit in federal court in San Francisco on behalf of three 17-year-olds who were detained, pending deportation, in what the group says are jail-like facilities in that state, including one in Yolo County. Credit: Tyche Hendricks/KQED

Civil rights advocates representing three immigrant minors from Brentwood filed a class-action lawsuit Friday against the federal government over the teenagers’ detention in California facilities, saying they are being held on unfounded allegations of gang involvement in violation of their rights.

The suit, which the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed in federal court in San Francisco, brings together the claims of the three 17-year-olds who were detained, pending deportation, in what the group says are jail-like facilities in that state. The identities of the minors were not disclosed.

The legal action comes as local and federal authorities are cooperating in the pursuit of the violent MS-13 criminal gang that preys on immigrant communities and has been linked to slayings and violent crimes on Long Island, particularly in the Suffolk communities of Brentwood and Central Islip. The lawsuit echoes recent complaints reported by Newsday of immigrant teens who had landed in trouble over accusations of gang involvement.

“They are being swept up on the flimsiest of allegations of gang affiliation and they are being sent across the country,” far from relatives and their lawyers, “without any opportunity to have any hearing . . . or to contest the charges,” said William Freeman, senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California.

The civil liberties group contends that the agencies involved are violating constitutional rights, trampling on established immigration law and violating legal precedent on the treatment of the minors who the suit seeks to represent as a class.

The legal complaint names Attorney General Jeff Sessions — tasked by President Donald Trump to pursue aggressive enforcement against the MS-13 gang and immigrants in the United States illegally — as well as other federal officials.

The agencies targeted in the action are 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 suit names officials with Yolo County, California, where one of the detention facilities is located, and with the BCFS Health and Human Services, a government contractor linked to a detention facility in Fairfield, California.

A spokesman for Sessions reaffirmed in a written statement Friday the Trump administration’s push against the gang.

“During the attorney general’s visit to El Salvador, he repeatedly heard of efforts by MS-13 and other transnational gangs to prey on and recruit children as young as eight years old,” said the statement from Ian D. Prior. “We will absolutely defend the president’s lawful authority to keep Americans safe and protect communities from gang violence.”

Homeland Security and its USCIS and ICE subagencies said, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on pending litigation.” The remaining agencies did not comment.

The case centers on the experiences of three immigrant teens who came from Central America as unaccompanied minors, crossing the border illegally and qualifying for anti-trafficking protections that could lead to permanent legal residency. All described run-ins with school or police officials that led to questions about gang involvement and eventual detention.

One of them, identified as A.H., is a Honduran immigrant who was arrested in front of his home, following two other cases of charges involving menacing with a weapon and fifth-degree marijuana possession — both of which were adjourned pending dismissal. He was told he had admitted being a gang member, which the suit contends is untrue.

The second plaintiff, a Salvadoran teen identified as J.G., had been expelled from school for cutting class and found himself being frequently followed by Suffolk police, according to the suit. He was stopped and questioned about gang involvement while walking with a friend to a deli on a day when he was wearing a blue soccer jersey with the name of his country, El Salvador, the lawyers claim. That stop led to his detention.

The third plaintiff, a Salvadoran teen identified as F.E., was suspended from Brentwood High School and then was stopped frequently by police, the suit claims. He eventually was arrested for disorderly conduct over an incident that involved wrestling at a soccer field, his attorney said. He was released and rearrested by Suffolk police.

The third plaintiff’s lawyer, Bryan Johnson, whose office is in Bay Shore, criticized Suffolk’s police department for its role. The department is not named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Deputy Police Commissioner Justin Meyers said, “We are not going to comment on a lawsuit that we are not named in.”

In previous statements, Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini has described his department’s cooperation with federal law enforcement as part of a strategy of intelligence-led policing that looks at “multiple indicators” before designating anyone as a gang member.

The action seeks the minors’ release along with a declaration that the government has violated their rights under the U.S. Constitution, federal immigration law and a 1995 consent decree. It asks the court to block the government from arresting and detaining immigrant children without cause.

Immigrants, their lawyers and advocates have raised concerns in a string of cases on Long Island as they have denied accusations of gang connections, saying that overzealous school, police and immigration officials have acted on little evidence to pursue anyone suspected of being part of the MS-13 gang.

At the same time, local police departments have partnered with federal officials to identify, investigate, charge or place immigrant minors in deportation proceedings, saying they examine multiple indicators of gang affiliation.

The enforcement activity has been sparked by MS-13, a group with roots in Los Angeles and El Salvador that Sini said is deemed responsible for a rash of violence that has cost the lives of 17 people in Suffolk alone since 2016. Slayings attributed to the gang — with mostly young people the victims — involved brutal attacks with machetes and blunt objects.

Sessions visited Central Islip in April and Trump came to Brentwood last month to spotlight the law enforcement push against MS-13.

However, immigrants and their advocates have said the actions have ensnared people who deny connections to MS-13.

In June, three immigrant teens attending Bellport High School and their parents spoke exclusively to Newsday to say they were falsely accused of gang affiliation and were suspended by the South Country Central School District as a result. Those students had been cited in school suspension hearings either for wearing banned clothing with Chicago Bulls insignia or for flashing hand signs resembling the “Devil’s horn” sign associated with the MS-13.

Peter Brill, a lawyer representing the three and a former Bellport student, 20, said the names of all four were included on a list of alleged gang members and associates that the lawyer said came from the Suffolk police.

Suffolk police did not comment on that assertion, saying they had not seen the list.

One of the three immigrant teenagers, 16, was apprehended in July by federal agents seeking to remove him from the country and remains in detention.

In a separate case, an 18-year-old woman who lives in Brentwood and who came across the border as an unaccompanied minor said this week that she was arrested by immigration agents and detained for about a month in New Jersey as she was falsely accused of being an associate of the MS-13 gang.

An immigration judge ordered her release July 24, after Johnson, who also represents her, questioned the basis for her detention.

Two civil rights advocacy groups, the New York Civil Liberties Union and LatinoJustice PRLDEF, this month filed wide-ranging information requests with the Suffolk County Police Department and the South Country school district, raising concerns about the sharing of information and the criteria used to designate teenagers as gang members.

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