Last week, flanked by police officers in Long Island, President Trump told a crowd of supporters his administration was getting rid of immigrant “animals” who were causing gang violence in their communities. “They’re going to jails,” Trump yelled, “and then they’re going back to their country. Or they’re going back to their country, period.”
But a closer look at who the Trump administration is actually targeting shows that these so-called “animals” are sometimes children who have not even been accused of any crime. Police from Suffolk County are collaborating with the Trump administration to target immigrant children for arrest by Immigration and Customs Enforcement when the police are “not in a position to make a criminal arrest.” This means that kids who the police department knows it does not have the evidence to criminally prosecute are nonetheless being summarily snatched up by ICE, torn from their communities, and shipped to jail-like facilities, hundreds or thousands of miles from their family and immigration lawyers.
Children from Suffolk County report being falsely labeled a gang member for wearing clothing with a Chicago Bulls logo, for playing soccer with suspected gang members, and for displaying the flag of their home country, El Salvador. This labeling appears to be the first step in a process that results in minors being snatched and whisked away to detention.
In many ways, this is history repeating itself. Back in the 1980s, the federal government held immigrant children with no criminal background in hot, crammed jail cells in remote facilities across the country. These egregious conditions prompted a federal lawsuit, Flores v. Reno, which resulted in a 1997 consent decree that remains in effect to this day.
Despite the lessons of history, the Trump administration is once again arbitrarily jailing children.
The Flores decree established several procedural protections for children to prevent their arbitrary detention, giving them, for example, the right to know why they were being placed in highly restrictive facilities and the right to challenge that placement with the help of counsel. Congress later followed suit and passed a 2008 law requiring that immigrant children be placed in the “least restrictive setting that is in the best interest of the child,” and that no child be placed in highly restrictive jail-like conditions unless the minor “poses a danger to self or others or has been charged with having committed a criminal offense.”
But at least nine children from Suffolk County are being held in highly restrictive detention based solely on unconfirmed suspicions that they are affiliated with gangs. Despite the lessons of history, the Trump administration is once again arbitrarily jailing children.
In a letter last week, the New York Civil Liberties Union warned the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which has custody of immigrant children, that placing minors in highly restrictive detention without adequate cause or process violates the agency’s obligations under the Flores consent decree and federal law.
One kid’s case stands out. Hector (a pseudonym) came to the U.S. alone when he was 14. Ironically enough, he fled his home country because a gang repeatedly threatened to kill him. After he entered the U.S., ORR screened him, found he was not a safety risk, and released him to his relative in Long Island. Now 16, Hector is in school and has a girlfriend.
In April, Hector and his girlfriend were leaving high school when two Suffolk County detectives stopped them. The detectives asked Hector and his girlfriend for their ID, then jotted down their names. One detective asked Hector if he was in a gang. When Hector said no, the detective lifted his shirt to look for gang tattoos. But Hector had none. The detective then made a gang sign to see if Hector recognized it. Apparently unsatisfied, the detectives told Hector and his girlfriend to move along, and no one from Suffolk police has bothered Hector since.
They didn’t have to.
In July, ICE officials showed up at Hector’s job. They arrested him and gave him to ORR, which placed him in a facility over a thousand miles away from his home. Hector and his immigration lawyer never had the chance to contest his placement before he was shipped off. In fact, after over a week, his lawyer and his family still don’t know the facility he is being held in despite the lawyer’s repeated attempts to find out.
Recently, a social worker from ORR called Hector’s relative to say Hector is being held somewhere in Texas and that ORR officials do not think he is gang affiliated. But ORR is still holding him because the Suffolk detectives who stopped him three months ago suspect he is.
Hector is one of several examples of the “animals” that Trump and his administration are targeting for jail and deportation based on nothing more than unconfirmed suspicions.
We won’t let him get away with it.