NEW YORK, NY ‒ The New York Civil Liberties Union and the New York Immigration Coalition released a new report today documenting how allegations of gang membership, no matter how vague or flimsy, can lead to the denial of immigration relief to immigrant youth. The report finds that gang allegations are used to deny petitions for Special Immigrant Juvenile Status, release on bond, and other forms of relief such as asylum, DACA and even U-visas.
Stuck with Suspicion: How Vague Gang Allegations Impact Relief and Bond for Immigrant New Yorkers offers guidance to immigration lawyers, schools, police, and elected officials to ensure due process for young immigrants. Recommendations include limiting the information that local agencies share with ICE and that schools share with school resource officers, as well as implementing laws and policies to ensure gang database information is adequately vetted and reviewed.
“The Trump administration is criminalizing immigrant youth to justify the wrongful detainment and deportation of New York residents while depriving them of due process. This report highlights how gang allegations are often introduced into a case without meaningful opportunity to challenge them. New Yorkers are being denied access to legal protection and immigration benefits as a result of these unsubstantiated allegations of gang affiliation. It is critical that state agencies, schools, local law enforcement, and our elected leaders create safeguards to combat the issue, and protect immigrant communities from the grips of Trump’s deportation machine,” said Camille Mackler, Director of Legal Immigration Policy at the New York Immigration Coalition.
“Immigrant youth are being profiled and marked as dangerous, often without the opportunity to challenge the allegations against them or even know why they are accused,” said Paige Austin, staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. “These vague accusations of gang involvement can lead children to be detained, denied bond, denied relief, and even deported without any opportunity to see the evidence against them or have it reviewed by a neutral arbiter.”
Stuck with Suspicion builds on the findings of a 2018 report by the New York Immigration Coalition, Swept Up in the Sweep, that detailed how immigrant youth of color have been swept up into the Trump administration’s deportation dragnet based on false allegations of gang involvement. Through interviews with lawyers, advocates and families, the NYCLU and the NYIC identified critical patterns in the ways that gang allegations have been invoked to deny immigration relief, regardless of the veracity of such allegations.
Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) is one form of relief for children that is under attack. Even after a judge has dismissed gang allegations, young people applying for SIJS, have been denied as a result of those same allegations. Asylum applicants, including children, have also been interrogated and even detained at U.S. asylum offices on the basis of vague gang allegations. Finally, the Department of Homeland Security uses unsubstantiated allegations to argue in hearings that bond should be denied and individuals seeking asylum cannot possibly face danger in their home country.
Gang allegations are often based on individuals’ clothes or associations, and lack even basic details about when, where, or in what context the suspicious incidents occurred, making the allegations difficult to effectively refute. Often, gang memos produced by ICE allege that an individual is affiliated with a gang simply because of where they hang out, who they are seen associating with or what clothes they were.
The report tells the story of one high school student, identified as Lucas, who was suspended for five days after a school official searched his backpack and found a drawing with the area code from his home country in it. Lucas applied for SIJS, which would have put him on the path to obtaining a Green Card and eventually citizenship. But several months after his suspension, Immigration and Customs Enforcement came to his home on Long Island and arrested him. He was detained for over four months before an immigration judge ruled that the government’s allegations of gang membership were baseless and ordered his release. Later that spring, USCIS denied his SIJS petition based on the same allegations of gang involvement that the judge had rejected.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does not disclose any details of the evidence it relies on to confer or deny immigration relief, and law enforcement agencies do not disclose information contained in gang databases or files. Lawyers representing immigrant youth have no way of challenging the allegations because they have no information about the basis of the accusations. Often, the allegations originated at school, where information about suspensions and associations observed or reported by school resource officers makes its way into ICE gang memos.
“Flagging students to immigration officials erodes trust, makes schools less effective, and leads to grave consequences for children and their families on the basis of speculation and rumor,” said JP Perry, Skadden Fellow at the NYCLU. “Schools should focus their efforts on working to ensure that all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported, instead of sharing suspicions about certain students with law enforcement that could stick with them for years and disrupt their lives.”