Immigrant teens unjustly targeted for gang affiliation

Tammy Alexander is senior legislative associate for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Washington office. This piece originally appeared on MCC’s Peace on the Hill column for PeaceSigns, the online news magazine of the Peace and Justice Support Network.

In June, a young man walking home from a soccer game with his friends in Suffolk County, New York, was questioned by police, turned over to immigration officials and put into detention. His crime? He was suspected of being part of a gang — an accusation he strongly denies and for which there is no evidence to support.

The cruel irony is that the young man had come to the United States because he refused to join a gang in El Salvador. And because he refused to join, gang members threatened his life and the life of his sister. Both fled to the U.S. where their mother was already living.

Dozens of similar stories have been reported recently, with high school students picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) due to the colors of clothes they wore, who they sat next to in class or what they were doodling in a notebook. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit alleging immigrant teens are being illegally detained based on accusations of gang affiliation with no evidence to support the claims.

Though local police cannot arrest someone simply for suspected gang membership, they can turn individuals over to ICE. New policies under the Trump administration encourage the detention of immigrants who meet at least two of the following criteria: having gang tattoos, frequenting an area notorious for gangs or wearing gang apparel.

On September 14, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Criminal Alien Gang Members Removal Act, H.R. 3697, which would strengthen such practices and codify them into law, requiring mandatory detention without bond for any immigrant suspected of gang membership and placing the burden of proof on the accused to demonstrate innocence. No exceptions exist for youth coerced into a gang under threat of violence.

Furthermore, an overly broad definition of a “gang” — five or more people working together — could be used to criminalize church members who assist undocumented immigrants. While the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate, it could be bundled with a number of pro-enforcement bills during efforts to pass the Dream Act.

Recent reports indicate the Trump administration is also looking to speed up the deportation of Central American teenagers through a process known as “expedited removal.” Such a process could be used to deport teenage asylum seekers without a hearing once they turn 18. Court hearings are crucial because these are life or death decisions for many immigrants. Some who left their home communities because they were targeted by local gangs have been killed after being deported back into a dangerous situation.

Biblical teachings implore us to care for the most vulnerable, including migrants, children and those fleeing violence.

In Matthew 18, Jesus said, “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven … So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.” Rather than looking for ways to deport vulnerable children back into the dangers from which they fled, we should be helping them to stay safe and flourish in their new homes.

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