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The MS-13 gang is getting blamed for a spike in deadly violence on Long Island, N.Y. La Mara Salvatrucha, as it's also known, actively recruits kids. So schools are becoming a key battlefield in the fight against the gang. But WNYC's Sarah Gonzalez reports that as police ramp up surveillance, teenagers who are undocumented say they're being falsely accused of gang membership.
SARAH GONZALEZ, BYLINE: When immigration agents picked up an 18-year-old girl at her home in Brentwood, Long Island this summer, they didn't immediately put handcuffs on her. They waited until after she got in the car. So the teen's mom wouldn't have to see it.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: No la pude abrazar ni tocarla.
GONZALEZ: The mom couldn't hug her daughter or touch her. She says it was heartbreaking.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Para mi una tristeza ver a mi hija ahi que por gusto se la han llevado.
GONZALEZ: Her daughter, a junior in high school, is accused of being a member of the violent MS-13 gang. The evidence - school officials found marijuana in her locker. And she was, quote, "observed at Brentwood High School with other confirmed MS-13 members."
BRYAN JOHNSON: The classification that she's an MS-13 member is meaningless.
GONZALEZ: This is her lawyer, Bryan Johnson.
JOHNSON: What's the evidence to support that classification?
GONZALEZ: There wasn't enough for the judge. She let the teen go. According to documents in a number of cases reviewed by WNYC and NPR, information about public school students on Long Island - the clothes and colors they wear to class, what they write on a hat, who they talk to in a hallway - all of this is being used as evidence in immigration court that students are affiliated with MS-13 and that they should be detained and deported. NPR agreed not to name the students because they worry that speaking out could hurt their cases. The teen from Brentwood is home now after spending a month in the immigration wing of a county jail in New Jersey.
Hi. Nice - mucho gusto. Hablas un poco de Ingles?
She speaks really softly and knows very little English.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: I go to the bathroom, please? I go to the drink water?
GONZALEZ: The school that taught her those phrases - she doesn't want to go back there for her senior year.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Tengo miedo a regresar a esa escuela.
GONZALEZ: You're scared to go back to that school?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: No se por todo lo que me paso solo por ir a esa escuela.
GONZALEZ: She's worried someone will accuse her of something else and that could jeopardize her petition for legal status in the U.S. She left El Salvador to get away from MS-13 when she was 16. She walked for a month and a half to get to the U.S. alone. Thousands of so-called unaccompanied minors have fled violence in Central America in recent years and that classification means the government cannot turn them away. They must resettle them somewhere in the country. But if immigration authorities believe they're a threat or a danger, they can seek to deport them.
Johnson, her lawyer, has dozens of clients all unaccompanied minors who have been picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, and accused of gang membership.
JOHNSON: None of them have been convicted of crimes. Keep that in mind. They have no criminal history. They never hurt anyone. They are from Central America. And this administration is hunting them in the false name of public safety.
GONZALEZ: Hunting them?
JOHNSON: Yes. They're going after these kids. Every week, it's like another child has been arrested by ICE.
GONZALEZ: Here's the thing - being in a gang isn't a crime. Police cannot arrest people for being in a MS-13. So officers on Long Island are assigned to follow 400 people they believe are gang members, and they wait for them to commit any offense. Police say the goal is to put MS-13 members in jail. But if they can't, officers call immigration agents who can detain undocumented immigrants even if they haven't been charged with a crime. One 16-year-old boy was sent to an immigration detention center in San Francisco. We talked on the phone. He says police followed him for months watching him.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Si, muchas veces tambien.
GONZALEZ: They asked where he lived, where he went to school. They took his picture, fingerprinted him. And police were notified when he was suspended from school for doodling the numbers 503 in his notebook. It's the international calling code for El Salvador where he's from and where the gang, which started in Los Angeles, has ties. The boy asked to meet with the police officer at his school.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Les dije que yo no era parte de ninguna ganga.
GONZALEZ: He told the officer he wasn't a part of any gang.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: No paso nada.
GONZALEZ: But nothing changed, he said. Then he was arrested. Police saw him on a soccer field fighting with a suspected MS-13 member. Now the American Civil Liberties Union has taken up his case and filed a class action lawsuit against the Trump administration. The civil rights group says immigrant teens are being illegally detained based on unsubstantiated evidence that they're gang members. And the New York chapter of the ACLU is investigating whether schools are sharing confidential information. School discipline records are protected by federal privacy laws, says Felix Adeyeye. He's with Brentwood schools where the two teens we just heard from are students.
FELIX ADEYEYE: We do not share our student records with law enforcement. And we're not in the business of immigration services.
GONZALEZ: But Adeyeye says police known as school resource officers are inside schools. And the district doesn't have a say in what they do. So WNYC and NPR asked Timothy Sini, the police commissioner in Suffolk County, which includes Brentwood, about student information ending up in immigration documents.
So this is it. The first page is just the ICE memo. And this is the evidence that they list. So school resource officers mentioned here.
Sini says the information sharing is appropriate. He says the gang recruits in schools.
TIMOTHY SINI: Seems like there's a lot of evidence here that this person is an MS-13 gang member, and he shouldn't be in our schools.
GONZALEZ: Federal authorities say they're confident in their intelligence, too.
ANGEL MELENDEZ: There's just so much that we know.
GONZALEZ: Angel Melendez is the special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security investigations in New York. He says the gang needs to be stopped.
MELENDEZ: After carrying out unthinkable violence, they can just go back home and play on the PlayStation or go to sleep? This is something that - it's hard to really wrap your head around until you actually see it and are really involved in it.
GONZALEZ: Homeland Security launched Operation Matador earlier this year to eradicate MS-13 in New York. Melendez says it's a reference to the final stage of a bull fight when el matador finishes off the bull. Bullhorns are the symbol for MS-13. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Gonzalez in New York.
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