Civil rights advocates representing three immigrant minors from Suffolk County filed a class action lawsuit Friday against the federal government over the children’s 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 proceedings, in what the group says are jail-like facilities in that state. The identities of the minors, who all lived in Brentwood, were not disclosed.
The legal action comes as local and federal authorities are cooperating in the pursuit of the violent MS-13 criminal gang, linked to slayings and violent crimes on Long Island, particularly in the Suffolk communities of Brentwood and Central Islip. The lawsuit echoes recent complaints from immigrant teens who had landed in trouble over accusations of gang involvement.
“We are talking about teens that were picked up for play-fighting with a friend, or for showing pride in their home country of El Salvador,” said a statement from Steven Kang, detention attorney for the ACLU Immigrants’ Rights Project.
The suit names Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other federal officials, as well as the following federal agencies: the Department of Health and Human Services, the Administration for Children and Families, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
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 also asks the court to issue an injunction blocking 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.
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The enforcement activity has been sparked by the MS-13, a group with roots in Los Angeles and El Salvador that Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy 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 President Donald Trump came to Brentwood last month to spotlight the law enforcement push against MS-13.
However, immigrants and their advocates have said the push has 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 for 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 her attorney, Bryan Johnson, whose office is in Bay Shore, 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.