As the Long Island murders made national news, the suburban community became an emblem of what legislators called a gang “epidemic” and the president referred to as “American carnage,” the front-line of a war on MS-13 that provided convenient justification for a much broader crackdown on immigration. It was a war fought via press conferences, increased law enforcement budgets, and inflammatory rhetoric that saw government officials lowering themselves to the level of street gangsters — from Sessions telling MS-13 members, “We will find you. We will devastate your networks. … We will not concede a single block or street corner to your vicious tactics,” to ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan boasting, “My gang is bigger than theirs.”
“Operation Matador” — an ICE program that brings together federal and local law enforcement agencies to target and deport gang members regardless of their criminal history — was named after the final stages of a bullfight, “when ‘el Matador’ comes in to finish,” Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in New York, told WNYC. “And that’s our commitment, to finish.”
“Their purpose is, get as many young people deported, regardless of whether any of these gang connections are true or not, whether they’re criminal or not,” said Walter Barrientos, Long Island coordinator with Make the Road New York, a group that works closely with families caught between the dual fears of gangs and ICE.
“In essence, what they’re doing is what they did post-9/11 with Muslim men,” he added. “We just don’t have a Guantánamo; what we have is all these immigration detention centers they’re sending young people to.”
An ICE official in New York defended the agency’s enforcement operations as “intelligence driven.” “HSI does not profile or make arrests with prejudice, but rather uses reliable information gathered through multiple sources which results in the arrest of an individual,” the official said. Operation Matador, the official added, allows the agency a “more proactive approach” — meaning officers can execute administrative arrests, based on alleged gang members’ immigration status, rather than “sit back and wait” for them to commit crimes. So far, Operation Matador has led to more than 400 arrests of what ICE calls “transnational gang members” on Long Island. Of those, 228 were alleged MS-13 members, about half of whom were taken into custody via administrative arrests, according to the agency.
In September, a week after Trump announced he would end DACA, the House passed the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act. Even though gang affiliation alone is not a crime, if signed into law, the bill would essentially make any immigrant suspected of gang connections — including immigrants with legal status — a target for deportation. (Current law requires a criminal conviction.) Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, a lead sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would empower ICE to “act immediately.” “We don’t have to wait until these brutal killers wield their machetes,” she said.
But Trump and Republican members of Congress weren’t the only ones to seize on the Long Island murders to push for harsher law enforcement and the criminalization of immigrant youth. Last September, on the first anniversary of Kayla’s and Nisa’s deaths, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo showed up on Long Island pledging “zero tolerance” and statewide anti-gang legislation. He promised to station state troopers in 10 high schools across the island. “Students could come to the state police officer and say, ‘You know, confidentially, I’ve been bullied and I don’t know what to do,’” Cuomo said.
The proposal drew the immediate condemnation of youth advocacy groups, as well as some schools (which were reportedly blindsided by the governor’s move). “This is the exact opposite of what we all wish to see and need,” said Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of STRONG, the organization that runs the anti-gang program that Dennis attended. Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
So far, no state troopers have moved into schools — though they are present outside schools. But on Long Island, they would only add different law enforcement badges to school districts that already have dozens of school resource officers, police officers who are stationed in schools. There are about 20,000 SROs nationwide, and for years, advocates have blamed them for the criminalization of youth, especially youth of color.
“When youth of color are dealing with some serious issues, the suggestion is always corrections and incarceration and let’s arrest,” Sergio Argueta, STRONG’s founder, told me in an interview. “The schools are dealing with significant issues. They don’t have personnel that are culturally competent, that can even communicate with these individuals in the same language. They’re oftentimes the most underfunded, under-resourced districts. Clearly the easy release valve for all this pressure is, Oh, let’s get the precinct in.”
That’s problematic enough when the students are U.S. citizens, but for undocumented kids, it can mean a direct line to deportation. Schools don’t share information with ICE directly, but local police departments work closely with federal immigration officials, particularly in the absence of sanctuary policies, which means that information gathered by police officers stationed in schools, no matter how inaccurate, can quickly make its way to immigration officials with little interest in discerning between criminals and everyone else.
“You’re not only suffering criminal consequences, but immigration consequences,” Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told me. “It just becomes a cascading cause and effect, where you have perhaps a school administrator accusing someone of being ‘gang’ based on very thin evidence, and that becomes something that is written and put into that student’s file. Maybe there’s a suspension or some kind of school-related proceeding where there’s a paper trail — that often gets passed to the local police agency if local police is in that school, and then that gets passed on to immigration.”
“So you have these crazy situations where immigrant youth might one day get arrested by immigration, and they go to a hearing to obtain bond and suddenly they’re accused of being gang-affiliated,” Mao added. “And that might relate to something that maybe happened years ago, and they got suspended and some teacher maybe wrote one sentence accusing them of being gang-affiliated, and on that evidence, the immigration judge is now denying your release.”
“It’s not necessarily a top-down policy,” said Bryan Johnson, a Long Island attorney who has represented several youth accused of gang affiliation. “But the school officials are very reckless about the privacy of these students. They’ll share things with the SRO and not even think about what the consequences might be. It goes from the school to the SRO, then the police directly share it with ICE.”
Officials argue that these tactics are necessary. In December, Suffolk County police stopped and arrested five alleged MS-13 members as they tried to kidnap a 16-year-old boy — the victim and all but one of his assailants were students at Brentwood High. On that occasion, the school district’s superintendent said that the school’s security staff worked closely with police and alerted them to a suspicious van in the area.
But the school district has also maintained that school officials don’t share students’ confidential records with SROs. Attorneys argue that information makes its way to police more informally, and former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini seemed to confirm that, telling WNYC that “there are a number of ways” for officers to gather intelligence in schools. “And kudos to school resource officers for being diligent,” he added.
A teen represented by Johnson, for instance, was stopped in a school hallway and taken to the principal’s office for holding a notebook scribbled with the number “503” — El Salvador’s telephone country code and the name of an offshoot of MS-13.
“Once he’s in the principal’s office, they called the police, and the police officer came, and he learned about him, and the Suffolk County police shared that info directly with ICE,” said Johnson. “Their excuse is, ‘Oh, we don’t control the SROs.’ The thing is, if an SRO is there if there’s something happening, that’s one thing, but when something happens that is not a criminal or dangerous activity, and then they call the police and bring them in and invite them into the process … it’s a pretty clear chain of events. There’s no way they could deny it.”
Neither the Brentwood nor Hempstead school districts responded to requests for comment. The Suffolk and Nassau county police departments also failed to respond.
The close relationship between schools and law enforcement is precisely the issue, says Barrientos. “Police officers do not belong in the schools,” he told me. “That’s been the problem: their presence and the fact that they will always override any school policy for the sake of being law enforcement agents.”
I met with Barrientos in July, hours after the announcement of Trump’s impending visit to Long Island. He was scrambling to find out where the president would speak to coordinate a local protest. At the Make the Road office, on a main thoroughfare of Brentwood dotted with Central American shops and fast food chains, mostly women and small children waited for help from the staff — with everything from legal and immigration problems to finding free English classes.
That morning, Barrientos was particularly frustrated with local officials — first among them Rep. Peter King, a Republican whose district includes Brentwood, who he said “engineered” Trump’s interest in Long Island. Some here say it was King who put MS-13 on the map for the president, who never mentioned the gang during the campaign and seemed to want to make Chicago, not suburban New York, the target of his tough-on-crime agenda.
“We have the largest school district outside of New York City, one of the poorest school districts in the state for decades. [King] has never had a hearing about that,” said Barrientos. “He’s never directed funding or initiatives for these schools. It wasn’t until this happened, where they found an opportune time to connect it to criminalization of immigrants, that they jumped on this.”
Barrientos turned his phone toward me to show a photo of the latest case he was dealing with — that of a 16-year-old boy, with no criminal record, who was suspended from school for wearing a T-shirt with a photo of the singer Lady Gaga. At the time of the suspension, the boy’s legal residence had just been approved, but his green card hadn’t arrived yet. Immediately, his approval was revoked and he was given two months to appeal. Then within days, ICE agents arrested him and sent him to a detention center in Texas.
“Lady Gaga with a hustle sign. This is why he is being deported right now,” Barrientos said. “Because at the school they told him, ‘Your T-shirt, we think, is related to gang activity.’”
“He had never been told that he couldn’t wear this particular kind of T-shirt to school.”
Since then, the boy’s attorneys won his release, and he returned to Long Island. But the removal order against him remains. “He will never just walk out into the world and leave this behind him unless his immigration judge grants him immigration status,” said Barrientos. “So even if he were cleared by the courts on the gang piece, immigration will always hold the discretion to deport him.”
“That’s what’s really wrong about this process,” he added. “The police is thinking, ‘All we’re doing is we’re just flagging all the suspects, and if they’re innocent, they’ll be fine.’ But the reality is that, when you are an immigrant and these charges are put upon you, you almost have three times as hard of a job proving your case, because you are put in deportation proceedings because of the charges, even if they are not proven.”
There are more cases like that.
Students were suspended from school and later detained by ICE for wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey or drawing bull horns on a calculator, a symbol associated with gangs. Others were targeted after posting the Salvadoran flag on Facebook or flashing the middle finger, which school staff said was a gang sign.
Last summer, a high school junior was arrested and detained for a month after she was “observed at Brentwood High School with other confirmed MS-13 members,” according to a memo submitted by ICE to an immigration judge. The judge in her case was not convinced. “There’s nothing else there really other than she’s been seen in the presence of gang members,” he said in court, ordering her release.
Johnson, who represented the girl, said that ICE told her “they didn’t think that she was MS, they knew that she wasn’t. They were just trying to use her as an informant to get to her boyfriend.”
Johnson described agents taking anonymous allegations of gang affiliation as sufficient evidence to detain someone. He said officers sometimes used teens as informants, only to later turn against them and detain them. He also said they sometimes forced kids who didn’t speak English to sign releases they didn’t understand and threatened teens with deportation to coerce them into collaborating with investigators.
“They don’t care,” he said. “It’s a blanket strategy.”
As The Intercept has reported, in order to be classified as a gang member by ICE, an individual must meet two of 10 criteria, which include tattoos, clothing, and the display of “gang signs,” but also the testimony of “reliable sources” and “untested informants” — a rather low standard — and simply frequenting “an area notorious for gangs.” The ICE official in New York said that each arrest made by the agency is based on evidence, and that the agency vets the information it receives from local law enforcement.
ICE can also access gang databases compiled by local law enforcement agencies — usually with little accuracy and even less transparency. The use of these databases has intensified in recent years, as have reports of the many errors they contain. CalGang — a database widely used in California — listed 42 babies under the age of 1 as active gang members. The Chicago Police Department’s gang database contains an astonishing 130,000 names. Individuals listed in these databases aren’t notified when their name is added — and if gang designations are difficult to fight in criminal court, with court-appointed attorneys, they are even harder to contest in deportation proceedings, in which there are no public defenders and those who can’t afford a private attorney end up alone before a judge.
On Long Island, where gang members, their victims, and scores of other kids with no connection to gangs share the same background and “frequent” the same places — including the same schools — it’s unclear what can make one a gang member or affiliate in the eyes of ICE and police.
Sini, who was the Suffolk County police commissioner until last month, when he was sworn in as the county’s district attorney, said officers adhere to “strict criteria” requiring “several indicators” be met before labeling someone a gang member. But in meetings with advocates and attorneys as police commissioner, he had declined to disclose those indicators — ostensibly not to alert gangs to police tactics, but leaving some to wonder whether the department had any nuanced understanding of the gang and its members at all.
“The whole thing is informal,” said Johnson. “They pick and choose who they say is an MS-13 member based on what they want.”
“It’s really bullshit.”
In July, the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to local and federal officials condemning the detention of minors based on unverified accusations of gang affiliation. “We believe children are being falsely labeled as gang members and, as a result, are being hastily transported to distant high-security facilities without notice to their lawyers or family members,” the letter said. “We’ve heard from children who are afraid to go to school or go outside their homes because they’re scared they will be picked up by ICE and separated from their loved ones,” Irma Solis, the NYCLU’s Suffolk County chapter director, said at the time, “and all because someone may have misunderstood a T-shirt.”
Days later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a class-action lawsuit against top Trump administration officials for using unsubstantiated claims of gang affiliation to illegally detain minors in jail-like facilities thousands of miles from home. The ICE official declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond saying that in order not to harm further investigations, immigration officials don’t share all the evidence they have against an individual when making a case for that person to be detained.
The ACLU and local advocates know of a few dozen youth from Long Island who ended up in immigration detention after they were identified as gang members. But they suspect there are more. It’s even harder to tell how many kids were picked up by immigration authorities after incidents at school led to criminal records.
For families with undocumented members, fear of immigration authorities is so great that many never reach out for help. “A lot of these cases we don’t learn about,” said Johnson.
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