A New York civil rights group sued the Trump administration on Tuesday (February 20) for holding undocumented immigrant children in prolonged detention, blaming a policy shift at the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for what it calls “restrictive imprisonment.”
“The Trump Administration is trapping children, many of whom came to New York to escape trauma and violence, in purgatory, separating them from their families and upending their lives,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), said in a statement.
The group says that ORR altered its policies in June 2017 to require that the agency’s director greenlight the release of any child held in its facilities. Scott Lloyd, the ORR director appointed by President Donald Trump, has only singed off on a handful of releases, according to the NYCLU, which says that more than 40 children are being detained indefinitely.
The lead plaintiff in the class action suit, filed at the United States District Court in the Southern District of New York, is a teenager identified as LVM, who arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador in 2016 after fleeing gang violence. LVM, age 17, was detained in Long Island last July as part of nationwide raids by the Trump administration that targeted members of the international Mara Salvatrucha gang, know as MS-13.
The NYCLU lawsuit filed Tuesday says that federal laws offer protection to thousands of children to who make the dangerous journey to the U.S. fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. These laws, the suit says, require that children be quickly reunited with family in the U.S. while their immigration cases make their way through court.
From the suit:
In a sharp break from the laws and policies intended to protect these vulnerable children, the Trump administration has vilified and targeted them. President Trump has said that large numbers of immigrant children are gang members and “animals”; Attorney General Sessions has described them as “wolves in sheep’s clothing”; and both men have denounced the laws that protect these children. On the day before the filing of this lawsuit, the administration issued a statement attacking the federal statute that protects immigrant children, characterizing its protections as “loopholes.”
LVM was among dozens of students detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) based on police reports filed by Bellport High School in Long Island. LVM was suspended by the school for flashing two middle fingers at a schoolmate—a sign school officials mistook for gang affiliation, according to the NYCLU. Meanwhile, the civil rights group says that LVM has no criminal record and is not involved with gangs.
In December, a New York immigration judge declared that LVM posed no safety or flight risk, and local ORR officials concluded that LVM, an immigrant with undocumented status, posed no danger. In the meantime, LVM’s family applied for asylum and is navigating immigration court proceedings.
Bellport’s response to gang affiliation in its school came after a year-long wave of violence starting in September 2016 that saw dozens of MS-13-related murders in Suffolk County, Long Island. In April 2017, two Bellport students were killed in a quadruple homicide, and local police began to clampdown on the school’s students, resulting in the suspension of dozens of students.
But the NYCLU quickly filed a Freedom of Information Law request seeking information about the school district’s criteria for determining gang involvement, alleging that students had been suspended for wearing t-shirts with a Chicago Bulls logo and displaying an El Salvador flag on a Facebook page.
President Trump visited Long Island in July 2017 and promised to purge MS-13 gang members from local communities. “Together we’re going to restore safety to our streets and peace to our communities,” said Trump. “We’re going to destroy the vile criminal cartel MS-13. These guys are animals.”
Together, we’re going to restore safety to our streets and peace to our communities, and we’re going to destroy the vile criminal cartel, #MS13, and many other gangs…
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 17, 2017