A Girl Was Detained for a Month in an Immigration Jail Just Because She Was Seen Near a Gang

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A high school junior in New York was detained for a month in an immigration jail for allegedly being seen with fellow students suspected of being members of the gang MS-13, according to a Monday report from WNYC.


The junior–who WNYC refers to under the pseudonym of Vanessa–came to the U.S. by foot from El Salvador two years ago. She was 16 and unaccompanied by a parent or legal guardian, the station reports.

According to a memo written by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and obtained by WNYC, she was allegedly seen at her high school “with other confirmed MS-13 members.”

MS-13 has been a frequent talking point for the Trump administration, which uses the gang’s very real dangerousness as a tool to whip up anti-immigrant fervor and campaign against sanctuary cities across America.

“Sanctuary cities only make it more difficult, if not impossible to remove gang members,” ICE acting director Thomas Homan said last month. “Together, our gang is bigger than theirs.”

Because of Vanessa’s suspected ties, she was detained in the immigrant wing of a New Jersey jail for a month.

“In light of [Vanessa’s] affiliation to a violent street gang, she should not be afforded any type of immigration services, relief, benefit or otherwise released from custody pending the outcome of removal proceedings,” the memo continued, according to WNYC.


Eventually, a judge decided that simply being seen with and allegedly talking to people suspected of being gang members was not enough reason to continue to detain someone, and Vanessa was released.

Her case is an extreme, but advocates say using tenuous gang affiliations isn’t uncommon.


The New York Civil Liberties Union released a letter last month condemning officials for detaining minors like Vanessa for tenuous ties to gang members. According to the NYCLU, authorities have claimed “wearing a black T-shirt to school, playing soccer with suspected gang affiliates [or] wearing clothing with the Chicago Bulls logo” could be indicators of gang affiliation and have led to the detention of at least nine minors.


The incidents are making advocates concerned that students are being surveilled in the classroom by officers assigned to schools (“school resource officers”), and that information is somehow making its way to other law enforcement and possibly immigration authorities. From WNYC’s report:

WNYC asked Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini how school suspensions ended up in the hands of immigration officials.

“There are a number of ways,” Sini said. “And kudos to school resource officers for being diligent.”


As for Vanessa, she would be a senior next year. But now, she doesn’t want to go back to school. According to WNYC, she “has an open removal case, meaning she can face deportation.”

“I’m scared to go back,” she told WNYC in Spanish. “Look at everything I went through, just for attending that school.”


I have reached out to ICE for comment on this story and will update if I hear back.