Judges Begin Releasing Immigrant Teens Who Were Locked Up on the Flimsiest of Evidence

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A group of immigrant teenagers who were rounded up and detained by federal authorities on suspicion of being members in a violent street gang have begun to be released after a series of judges found the evidence against them to be extremely flimsy.

The releases come after a federal judge in California ruled that the immigration judges who preside over the youths’ cases have the temporary authority to free them from detention—something they previously lacked. The teens—many of whom came from New York’s Suffolk county—had been arrested during a sweep this past summer. Law enforcement officials were accused of targeting the minors based on alarmingly thin evidence, such as the color of their clothing and who they spoke with in school.

Speaking with News12 Long Island, a 17-year-old unaccompanied minor using the initials F.E. claimed he’d been arrested on suspicion of being a member of the MS-13 gang simply for having written El Salvador’s area code in a notebook at school. He’d been detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement in California since the summer and was released last week after an immigration judge declared the government’s evidence against him to be “insufficient” and “based on hearsay.”


“I am so happy because I am with my family,” F.E. told the station. “Everything is good.”

F.E.’s case is hardly an isolated example of unaccompanied minors who have been caught up in immigration drag nets based on flimsy suspicions of gang affiliation. As WNYC notes, immigration judges in many cases like F.E.’s have repeatedly insisted that the evidence presented to them alleging gang membership was decidedly insufficient. However, until the recent federal judge’s ruling, there wasn’t much that could be done.

Speaking with News12, Suffolk Police Commissioner Tim Sini claimed that the judges ruling wouldn’t change the way his department—which was instrumental in identifying and detaining many of the teenagers affected by the summer sweep—operates.

“We’re going to continue the strategy that’s been working for the last year and a half, and we’re not going to make any apologies for that,” Sini told the station.


F.E., the first unaccompanied minor to be released from detention following the federal judge’s ruling, is currently part of a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU. In it, plaintiffs accuse Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, and the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement of using thinly substantiated claims to back up their allegations of gang affiliation.

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