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LI teen at center of class-action suit on detention of immigrant minors

The detention of an immigrant teen from Long Island is at the center of a new class-action lawsuit lodged against the federal government and a shelter contracted to hold minors in immigration cases.

The New York Civil Liberties Union filed the suit on Feb. 16 challenging “the government’s prolonged detention of immigrant children across New York State” for minors who have been placed under heightened supervision. The federal government and its contractor have not filed responses.

The Salvadoran immigrant, identified as L.V.M. in court filings, was among several teenagers who told Newsday last summer that they had been falsely accused of gang affiliation at Bellport High School, as the South Country school district enforced its dress and behavior code. The allegations surfaced amid a larger police and immigration enforcement crackdown against the MS-13 criminal gang.

The plaintiff, now 17, was apprehended and placed in detention by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in July and remains in federal custody, despite an immigration judge later ruling that he did not pose a danger or flight risk, the filing states.

“It’s outrageous,” said Paige Austin, staff attorney with the NYCLU. “You could never take a child from their parent in New York State under any other system of law and hold him for seven months and refuse to return him to his mother.”

L.V.M. was initially suspended from school under allegations that he flashed gang signs at another student, but he said then that he was just making an obscene gesture after they had a disagreement.

His case, Austin said, exemplifies others where immigrant children are detained on little evidence and held in violation of federal law and legal precedent prescribing their treatment, as well as without observing due process guaranteed by the Constitution. At least 40 minors are held in similar circumstances, including some who have been placed in secure facilities due to mental health or behavior issues, Austin said.

The child’s mother, Edith Esmeralda Mejia de Galindo, and “others similarly situated” are named as plaintiffs.

The filing targets officials with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which manages the custody of immigrant minors, and its overseeing agencies, the Administration for Children and Families and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It also names The Children’s Village, a nonprofit contracted to keep custody of those children in Dobbs Ferry, a village in Westchester County.

The nonprofit did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the agency “does not comment on matters related to pending litigation.”

The legal complaint is particularly critical of the role played by Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, because he “instituted a new policy that indefinitely stalls the reunification of children like L.V.M. with their families.”

Lloyd, a President Donald Trump appointee, requires that he or his designee must directly approve “the release of children who are currently or have ever been held in secure or staff-secure facilities” after other agency staff have reviewed those cases.

The U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement says on its website that it makes decisions “for placing children and youth in its custody . . . based on legal requirements as well as child welfare best practices” as it seeks “to provide a safe environment and place the child in the least restrictive setting appropriate for the child’s needs.”

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