January 9, 2020

NEW YORK – The New York Civil Liberties Union today filed a federal lawsuit to require the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to release records related to its role in a multi-million dollar effort to find, arrest, detain, and deport unaccompanied immigrant children.

The Department of Justice grant program in question furthers the Trump administration’s strategy in Operation Matador of levying false and implausible gang allegations against vulnerable unaccompanied immigrant children who have fled their home countries. The grant program explicitly requires local law enforcement grantees to obtain information from ORR about the unaccompanied immigrant children in its care.

As a result, officials are able to designate any immigrant child a “gang associate” based on indiscriminate criteria. ICE routinely and unlawfully arrests students accused of gang association without any meaningful review of the allegations, withholds information from families and immigration counsel, and denies families the opportunity to review or challenge the evidence.

Details about the program’s management and intentions remain shrouded in secrecy despite public outcry.

“The public deserves to know more about ORR’s role in Operation Matador,” said Antony Gemmell, staff attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “Resources designated for providing basic care to undocumented children are instead being used to target immigrant youth and families, many of whom fled their home countries to escape violence and persecution. We need to know more about this program.”

The NYCLU initially filed a FOIA request in August 2019 for records pertaining to the program, related grants, and any policies, procedures, or communications between ORR and grantees. ORR and its parent agencies have failed to acknowledge or respond to the request as well as two subsequent appeals for response.

“The targeting of immigrant children by ORR and federal immigration authorities must end,” Gemmell said. “Students should be able to access support and resources in schools without fear of arrest or deportation. Violation of this trust is harmful and unlawful.”

As of December 2018, ICE had detained about 170 unaccompanied immigrant youth under Operation Matador, including a dozen students from Huntington High School in Suffolk County, New York. ICE detained some of these children on the basis of such trivial things as possessing drawings of their high school mascot and the area code for their home country, which ICE characterized as “gang paraphernalia.”

In addition to Gemmell, legal fellow Jessica Perry and staff attorney Amy Belsher are counsel on the case.

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