A fleet is buses is parked at the back of Brentwood High School after a hectic day. The demand of buses increased considerably after the murders of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, with parents who wouldn't let their kids walk to school. "Since then, I always have to take the bus. I miss walking home," said Madeline Diaz, a friend of Nisa. Even after the indictments against 13 people on charges of gang affiliation, and over 140 people detained on suspicions of MS-13 affiliation, her family still worries constantly.***Brentwood, New York, was shocked after two teenage girls, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, were found dead in the backyard of a nearby home. In the last semester of 2016, a total of six bodies were found in Brentwood. The SCPD has repeatedly said to believe that all of the murders were product of gang violence, and thirteen people have been federally charged with the murders.Brentwood has had gang activity for over 12 years, with the presence of Bloods, Crips, MS-13 and MS-18 but the gruesome murders have led to panic in the community.Brentwood, New York, 2017.

From School Suspension to Immigration Detention

For Immigrant Students on Long Island, Trump’s War on Gangs Means the Wrong T-Shirt Could Get You Deported

A fleet is buses is parked at the back of Brentwood High School, New York, 2017. Photo: Adriana Loureiro Fernandez

One day last spring, Dennis was walking to his 10th-grade English class at Hempstead High School on Long Island when he felt someone run up behind him. Three boys he had seen around school but didn’t know started shouting at him. They called him “chavala” — a common Central American slang word that some say can also describe enemies of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a gang born in Los Angeles in the 1980s that has become a vehicle for the Trump administration’s war on Central American immigrants.

Dennis, who was 17 at the time, said he wasn’t sure whether the word was gang slang or why anyone would call him that. “Maybe I talked to someone who was against them,” he told me in Spanish during a recent interview.

The boys quickly escalated the attack. One grabbed Dennis and ripped his shirt. Another threatened him with a sharp pencil. Dennis defended himself “with nothing but my own hands,” he said. He put one of the boys in an arm lock. The boy bit him, leaving a bloody mark. Dennis let go and ran off to class.

That day, the school called Dennis’s mother, Laura, who demanded to see security camera footage of the incident but was told that she “didn’t have a right to it,” she told me. (Dennis’s and Laura’s names have been changed because they are undocumented.) Dennis was suspended for a month following the incident; he is not sure whether the boys who attacked him suffered the same consequences.

But that was only the beginning. Because of the growing connection between schools and local law enforcement agencies, Dennis’s school fight turned into a criminal charge. Then, because of his immigration status as an unaccompanied minor in the process of obtaining legal residence, that criminal charge triggered civil deportation proceedings, and the teen was arrested and shipped across the country to a detention center.

Dennis is one of dozens of teenagers to face the same ordeal after the Trump administration declared open season on MS-13, conducting sweeping enforcement operations in communities where large numbers of unaccompanied minors, mostly from El Salvador, have settled.

The path from school to immigration detention usually goes like this: A teenager, often recently resettled in the United States, gets into some sort of trouble at school. Sometimes, as in Dennis’s case, a fight triggers a criminal charge — making the teen a direct target for removal. Other times, the violation of some school code, official or unofficial, can prompt school administrators to label a teen as a gang member. It could be a shirt of the wrong color, a doodle scribbled on a notebook, lingering a moment too long in a certain hallway, or talking to someone the school has already determined belongs to a gang. In the absence of a criminal record, it’s not always clear how that information ends up in the hands of police and immigration authorities — but it usually does.

Days, weeks, or sometimes months after the incident that earned them the “gangster” label, teens might find Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials knocking on their doors and detaining them, sometimes transferring them to a facility on the other side of the country — a distinct iteration of the criminalization of youth that some have dubbed the “school-to-deportation pipeline.”

A view of Dennis's bedroom, where his little brother, 2, points up at a photo of Dennis and his grandmother in El Salvador, in Hempstead, Long Island on Oct. 19, 2017.

A view of Dennis’s bedroom, where his little brother, 2, points up at a photo of Dennis and his grandmother in El Salvador, in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 19, 2017.

Photo: Virginia Lozano for The Intercept

A few hours after Dennis was attacked in the high school hallway, police officers showed up at his house and took him to the local precinct for questioning. They released him that day on his own recognizance, but with an assault charge on his previously clean record. A court ordered him to complete a gang-prevention program with STRONG Youth, a Long Island community organization that has worked for two decades to keep kids away from gangs.

Dennis, who denies ever having been in a gang, liked the program, in which he got to play music and talk about his past.

He had arrived on Long Island from El Salvador two years earlier, one of more than 8,000 minors who were resettled there after entering the U.S. without a parent or guardian. His mother, who is undocumented and works in a restaurant, had paid $6,000 for a coyote to take him across the Texas border so he could join her and her 2-year-old son, a U.S. citizen, in Hempstead. Laura has two more children in El Salvador, a 9-year-old daughter and a 10-year-old son. She’s especially worried about the 10-year-old because soon, she said, “the gang will want him to join, or kill him.”

That’s why Dennis fled. He had been living with his grandmother in La Union when a local gang tried to recruit him. After two kids in the neighborhood were killed, he told his mother, “I want to come with you, it’s getting hard here,” Laura recalled. “I wanted to get all my kids here,” she added. “I wanted them to study.”

On Long Island, Dennis kept a low profile. Unaccompanied minors who are released into the U.S. live in legal limbo, and until they receive legal residence, they remain undocumented and potentially at risk of deportation. His mother cobbled together another $5,000 to pay an immigration attorney to file for his legal residence, which was still being processed at the time of the hallway fight. Dennis liked school, he said, but he mostly liked working with his stepfather, doing construction work on weekends. He didn’t learn much English, and he didn’t make many friends.

“Friends bring trouble,” his mother said.

In fact, as sensationalized accounts of an MS-13 invasion of Long Island started spreading amid a streak of murders, Laura started to worry about gangs there too, though she said things remained much worse in El Salvador. “Here, you don’t see them, you just hear there’s gangs,” she said. Then the school called her about Dennis’s fight, and an administrator told her, “You know how these kids in gangs are, always trying to start a fight.”

“I got scared,” Laura said. In El Salvador, “if you don’t join, they kill you, and here it’s just starting to be the same.” She began driving Dennis to school and picking him up to keep him safe. “My country is dangerous,” Dennis told me. “I didn’t know they’d be here too.”

Officer Dan Chmura, from the SCPD's Gang Task Force, looks at an MS-13 graffiti painted on a fence in a heavily wooded area. "This is the clique that murdered the girls," he said, referring to Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas. The graffiti reads "Ver, Oir, Callar", it's a wide-spread motto of the gang which roughly translates to "Seeing, Listening, Shushing". It refers to the no-snitch policy that rules in El Salvador. A way to intimidate communities into not speaking to authorities.***Brentwood, New York, was shocked after two teenage girls, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, were found dead in the backyard of a nearby home. In the last semester of 2016, a total of six bodies were found in Brentwood. The SCPD has repeatedly said to believe that all of the murders were product of gang violence, and thirteen people have been federally charged with the murders.Brentwood has had gang activity for over 12 years, with the presence of Bloods, Crips, MS-13 and MS-18 but the gruesome murders have led to panic in the community.Brentwood, New York, 2017.

Officer Dan Chmura, from the Suffolk County Police Department’s gang task force, looks at MS-13 graffiti painted on a fence in a heavily wooded area in Brentwood, N.Y., on Feb. 14, 2017.

Photo: Adriana Loureiro Fernandez

If you were to believe President Donald Trump, MS-13, the gang that led Dennis to flee El Salvador, rules Long Island, particularly a suburban section of Suffolk and Nassau counties that is home to a fast-growing Central American community surrounded by wealthier white towns governed mostly by white officials.

“They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” the president said during a visit to Long Island in July, speaking about MS-13 before an audience of Suffolk County police. Following similar remarks Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a few months earlier, Trump promised to “eradicate” the gang and “liberate” Long Island from its members, whom he called “animals.” “We’re getting them out,” Trump pledged. “They’re going to jails, and then they’re going back to their country.”

There is no question that gang violence is a serious problem on Long Island. MS-13 members were responsible for at least 25 murders there in the last two years, according to local officials. The victims, like the perpetrators, are mostly young immigrants, including many who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors. While local community members say the violence started much earlier, garnering little national attention or official response, the spotlight has been steadily focused on Long Island since September 2016, when 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas and 15-year-old Nisa Mickens were brutally murdered — with baseball bats and machetes — in Brentwood. Unlike most other victims, the girls were U.S. citizens and the daughters of U.S. citizens, and some on Long Island say it is no coincidence that their murders were the ones that finally prompted authorities to intervene.

Last month, the White House invited the girls’ parents to the State of the Union address, in which the president pledged to “close the deadly loopholes” that allow gang members to enter the United States as unaccompanied minors. In his speech, Trump also congratulated an ICE special agent in attendance, exhorting Congress to “send you some reinforcements.”

As police investigated the murders of Kayla and Nisa, more bodies turned up of teens who had been missing, sometimes for months. Unlike the two girls, most of the other victims were immigrants, but like them, most were students at Brentwood High. In the following months, hundreds of people were arrested as law enforcement embarked on a series of raids that have become the signature of this administration’s response to gang violence. In March, 13 people were indicted for seven murders in Suffolk County — including those of the two girls. A month later, the bodies of four more teens were found in a park. Residents believe wooded areas around Brentwood are hiding at least a dozen more undiscovered bodies. Since last summer, Suffolk County police and ICE have arrested more than 300 people they accuse of being gang members. So many alleged gang members are facing trial on Long Island that a judge had to authorize out-of-state attorneys from as far away as Florida and Puerto Rico to represent them.

As the Long Island murders made national news, the suburban community became an emblem of what legislators called a gang “epidemic” and the president referred to as “American carnage,” the front-line of a war on MS-13 that provided convenient justification for a much broader crackdown on immigration. It was a war fought via press conferences, increased law enforcement budgets, and inflammatory rhetoric that saw government officials lowering themselves to the level of street gangsters — from Sessions telling MS-13 members, “We will find you. We will devastate your networks. … We will not concede a single block or street corner to your vicious tactics,” to ICE Acting Director Thomas Homan boasting, “My gang is bigger than theirs.”

Operation Matador” — an ICE program that brings together federal and local law enforcement agencies to target and deport gang members regardless of their criminal history — was named after the final stages of a bullfight, “when ‘el Matador’ comes in to finish,” Angel Melendez, special agent in charge of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations in New York, told WNYC. “And that’s our commitment, to finish.”

“Their purpose is, get as many young people deported, regardless of whether any of these gang connections are true or not, whether they’re criminal or not,” said Walter Barrientos, Long Island coordinator with Make the Road New York, a group that works closely with families caught between the dual fears of gangs and ICE.

“In essence, what they’re doing is what they did post-9/11 with Muslim men,” he added. “We just don’t have a Guantánamo; what we have is all these immigration detention centers they’re sending young people to.”

An ICE official in New York defended the agency’s enforcement operations as “intelligence driven.” “HSI does not profile or make arrests with prejudice, but rather uses reliable information gathered through multiple sources which results in the arrest of an individual,” the official said. Operation Matador, the official added, allows the agency a “more proactive approach” — meaning officers can execute administrative arrests, based on alleged gang members’ immigration status, rather than “sit back and wait” for them to commit crimes. So far, Operation Matador has led to more than 400 arrests of what ICE calls “transnational gang members” on Long Island. Of those, 228 were alleged MS-13 members, about half of whom were taken into custody via administrative arrests, according to the agency.

In September, a week after Trump announced he would end DACA, the House passed the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act. Even though gang affiliation alone is not a crime, if signed into law, the bill would essentially make any immigrant suspected of gang connections — including immigrants with legal status — a target for deportation. (Current law requires a criminal conviction.) Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock, a lead sponsor of the bill, said the legislation would empower ICE to “act immediately.” “We don’t have to wait until these brutal killers wield their machetes,” she said.

But Trump and Republican members of Congress weren’t the only ones to seize on the Long Island murders to push for harsher law enforcement and the criminalization of immigrant youth. Last September, on the first anniversary of Kayla’s and Nisa’s deaths, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo showed up on Long Island pledging “zero tolerance” and statewide anti-gang legislation. He promised to station state troopers in 10 high schools across the island. “Students could come to the state police officer and say, ‘You know, confidentially, I’ve been bullied and I don’t know what to do,’” Cuomo said.

The proposal drew the immediate condemnation of youth advocacy groups, as well as some schools (which were reportedly blindsided by the governor’s move). “This is the exact opposite of what we all wish to see and need,” said Rahsmia Zatar, executive director of STRONG, the organization that runs the anti-gang program that Dennis attended. Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

So far, no state troopers have moved into schools — though they are present outside schools. But on Long Island, they would only add different law enforcement badges to school districts that already have dozens of school resource officers, police officers who are stationed in schools. There are about 20,000 SROs nationwide, and for years, advocates have blamed them for the criminalization of youth, especially youth of color.

“When youth of color are dealing with some serious issues, the suggestion is always corrections and incarceration and let’s arrest,” Sergio Argueta, STRONG’s founder, told me in an interview. “The schools are dealing with significant issues. They don’t have personnel that are culturally competent, that can even communicate with these individuals in the same language. They’re oftentimes the most underfunded, under-resourced districts. Clearly the easy release valve for all this pressure is, Oh, let’s get the precinct in.”

That’s problematic enough when the students are U.S. citizens, but for undocumented kids, it can mean a direct line to deportation. Schools don’t share information with ICE directly, but local police departments work closely with federal immigration officials, particularly in the absence of sanctuary policies, which means that information gathered by police officers stationed in schools, no matter how inaccurate, can quickly make its way to immigration officials with little interest in discerning between criminals and everyone else.

“You’re not only suffering criminal consequences, but immigration consequences,” Julie Mao, an attorney with the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild, told me. “It just becomes a cascading cause and effect, where you have perhaps a school administrator accusing someone of being ‘gang’ based on very thin evidence, and that becomes something that is written and put into that student’s file. Maybe there’s a suspension or some kind of school-related proceeding where there’s a paper trail — that often gets passed to the local police agency if local police is in that school, and then that gets passed on to immigration.”

“So you have these crazy situations where immigrant youth might one day get arrested by immigration, and they go to a hearing to obtain bond and suddenly they’re accused of being gang-affiliated,” Mao added. “And that might relate to something that maybe happened years ago, and they got suspended and some teacher maybe wrote one sentence accusing them of being gang-affiliated, and on that evidence, the immigration judge is now denying your release.”

“It’s not necessarily a top-down policy,” said Bryan Johnson, a Long Island attorney who has represented several youth accused of gang affiliation. “But the school officials are very reckless about the privacy of these students. They’ll share things with the SRO and not even think about what the consequences might be. It goes from the school to the SRO, then the police directly share it with ICE.”

Officials argue that these tactics are necessary. In December, Suffolk County police stopped and arrested five alleged MS-13 members as they tried to kidnap a 16-year-old boy — the victim and all but one of his assailants were students at Brentwood High. On that occasion, the school district’s superintendent said that the school’s security staff worked closely with police and alerted them to a suspicious van in the area.

But the school district has also maintained that school officials don’t share students’ confidential records with SROs. Attorneys argue that information makes its way to police more informally, and former Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini seemed to confirm that, telling WNYC that “there are a number of ways” for officers to gather intelligence in schools. “And kudos to school resource officers for being diligent,” he added.

A teen represented by Johnson, for instance, was stopped in a school hallway and taken to the principal’s office for holding a notebook scribbled with the number “503” — El Salvador’s telephone country code and the name of an offshoot of MS-13.

“Once he’s in the principal’s office, they called the police, and the police officer came, and he learned about him, and the Suffolk County police shared that info directly with ICE,” said Johnson. “Their excuse is, ‘Oh, we don’t control the SROs.’ The thing is, if an SRO is there if there’s something happening, that’s one thing, but when something happens that is not a criminal or dangerous activity, and then they call the police and bring them in and invite them into the process … it’s a pretty clear chain of events. There’s no way they could deny it.”

Neither the Brentwood nor Hempstead school districts responded to requests for comment. The Suffolk and Nassau county police departments also failed to respond.

Brentwood High School, in Long Island during the summer. The high school was at center stage on September of 2016, after four of its students were killed, supposedly as a result of gang activity in the school. Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla Cueva’s mother, was battling with Brentwood High School because her daughter was being harassed by gangs. “I fought this Board for two years and all I got was my Kayla killed,” she said in a Board Meeting last year. Her voice trembled and the whole room was dead silent. Cueva's waited for five months to meet with a social worker at school, but the meeting never happened. Last year’s school budget placed the funds in hiring a PR Relations Specialist, but no funds were addressed to enhance gang prevision counseling. “Did we need a PR Relations Specialist? Why? So that we could appear good on the outside while we were crashing down?” Mrs Rodriguez said in the meeting while other parents booed at the board. ***Brentwood, New York, was shocked after two teenage girls, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kayla Cuevas, were found dead in the backyard of a nearby home. In the last semester of 2016, a total of six bodies were found in Brentwood. The SCPD has repeatedly said to believe that all of the murders were product of gang violence, and thirteen people have been federally charged with the murders.Brentwood has had gang activity for over 12 years, with the presence of Bloods, Crips, MS-13 and MS-18 but the gruesome murders have led to panic in the community.Brentwood, New York, 2017.

Brentwood High School on Long Island on Sept. 21, 2017.

Photo: Adriana L. Fernandez

The close relationship between schools and law enforcement is precisely the issue, says Barrientos. “Police officers do not belong in the schools,” he told me. “That’s been the problem: their presence and the fact that they will always override any school policy for the sake of being law enforcement agents.”

I met with Barrientos in July, hours after the announcement of Trump’s impending visit to Long Island. He was scrambling to find out where the president would speak to coordinate a local protest. At the Make the Road office, on a main thoroughfare of Brentwood dotted with Central American shops and fast food chains, mostly women and small children waited for help from the staff — with everything from legal and immigration problems to finding free English classes.

That morning, Barrientos was particularly frustrated with local officials — first among them Rep. Peter King, a Republican whose district includes Brentwood, who he said “engineered” Trump’s interest in Long Island. Some here say it was King who put MS-13 on the map for the president, who never mentioned the gang during the campaign and seemed to want to make Chicago, not suburban New York, the target of his tough-on-crime agenda.

“We have the largest school district outside of New York City, one of the poorest school districts in the state for decades. [King] has never had a hearing about that,” said Barrientos. “He’s never directed funding or initiatives for these schools. It wasn’t until this happened, where they found an opportune time to connect it to criminalization of immigrants, that they jumped on this.”

Barrientos turned his phone toward me to show a photo of the latest case he was dealing with — that of a 16-year-old boy, with no criminal record, who was suspended from school for wearing a T-shirt with a photo of the singer Lady Gaga. At the time of the suspension, the boy’s legal residence had just been approved, but his green card hadn’t arrived yet. Immediately, his approval was revoked and he was given two months to appeal. Then within days, ICE agents arrested him and sent him to a detention center in Texas.

“Lady Gaga with a hustle sign. This is why he is being deported right now,” Barrientos said. “Because at the school they told him, ‘Your T-shirt, we think, is related to gang activity.’”

“He had never been told that he couldn’t wear this particular kind of T-shirt to school.”

Since then, the boy’s attorneys won his release, and he returned to Long Island. But the removal order against him remains. “He will never just walk out into the world and leave this behind him unless his immigration judge grants him immigration status,” said Barrientos. “So even if he were cleared by the courts on the gang piece, immigration will always hold the discretion to deport him.”

“That’s what’s really wrong about this process,” he added. “The police is thinking, ‘All we’re doing is we’re just flagging all the suspects, and if they’re innocent, they’ll be fine.’ But the reality is that, when you are an immigrant and these charges are put upon you, you almost have three times as hard of a job proving your case, because you are put in deportation proceedings because of the charges, even if they are not proven.”

There are more cases like that.

Students were suspended from school and later detained by ICE for wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey or drawing bull horns on a calculator, a symbol associated with gangs. Others were targeted after posting the Salvadoran flag on Facebook or flashing the middle finger, which school staff said was a gang sign.

Last summer, a high school junior was arrested and detained for a month after she was “observed at Brentwood High School with other confirmed MS-13 members,” according to a memo submitted by ICE to an immigration judge. The judge in her case was not convinced. “There’s nothing else there really other than she’s been seen in the presence of gang members,” he said in court, ordering her release.

Johnson, who represented the girl, said that ICE told her “they didn’t think that she was MS, they knew that she wasn’t. They were just trying to use her as an informant to get to her boyfriend.”

Johnson described agents taking anonymous allegations of gang affiliation as sufficient evidence to detain someone. He said officers sometimes used teens as informants, only to later turn against them and detain them. He also said they sometimes forced kids who didn’t speak English to sign releases they didn’t understand and threatened teens with deportation to coerce them into collaborating with investigators.

“They don’t care,” he said. “It’s a blanket strategy.”

As The Intercept has reported, in order to be classified as a gang member by ICE, an individual must meet two of 10 criteria, which include tattoos, clothing, and the display of “gang signs,” but also the testimony of “reliable sources” and “untested informants” — a rather low standard — and simply frequenting “an area notorious for gangs.” The ICE official in New York said that each arrest made by the agency is based on evidence, and that the agency vets the information it receives from local law enforcement.

ICE can also access gang databases compiled by local law enforcement agencies — usually with little accuracy and even less transparency. The use of these databases has intensified in recent years, as have reports of the many errors they contain. CalGang — a database widely used in California — listed 42 babies under the age of 1 as active gang members. The Chicago Police Department’s gang database contains an astonishing 130,000 names. Individuals listed in these databases aren’t notified when their name is added — and if gang designations are difficult to fight in criminal court, with court-appointed attorneys, they are even harder to contest in deportation proceedings, in which there are no public defenders and those who can’t afford a private attorney end up alone before a judge.

On Long Island, where gang members, their victims, and scores of other kids with no connection to gangs share the same background and “frequent” the same places — including the same schools — it’s unclear what can make one a gang member or affiliate in the eyes of ICE and police.

Sini, who was the Suffolk County police commissioner until last month, when he was sworn in as the county’s district attorney, said officers adhere to “strict criteria” requiring “several indicators” be met before labeling someone a gang member. But in meetings with advocates and attorneys as police commissioner, he had declined to disclose those indicators — ostensibly not to alert gangs to police tactics, but leaving some to wonder whether the department had any nuanced understanding of the gang and its members at all.

“The whole thing is informal,” said Johnson. “They pick and choose who they say is an MS-13 member based on what they want.”

“It’s really bullshit.”

In July, the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote a letter to local and federal officials condemning the detention of minors based on unverified accusations of gang affiliation. “We believe children are being falsely labeled as gang members and, as a result, are being hastily transported to distant high-security facilities without notice to their lawyers or family members,” the letter said. “We’ve heard from children who are afraid to go to school or go outside their homes because they’re scared they will be picked up by ICE and separated from their loved ones,” Irma Solis, the NYCLU’s Suffolk County chapter director, said at the time, “and all because someone may have misunderstood a T-shirt.”

Days later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a class-action lawsuit against top Trump administration officials for using unsubstantiated claims of gang affiliation to illegally detain minors in jail-like facilities thousands of miles from home. The ICE official declined to comment on the lawsuit beyond saying that in order not to harm further investigations, immigration officials don’t share all the evidence they have against an individual when making a case for that person to be detained.

The ACLU and local advocates know of a few dozen youth from Long Island who ended up in immigration detention after they were identified as gang members. But they suspect there are more. It’s even harder to tell how many kids were picked up by immigration authorities after incidents at school led to criminal records.

For families with undocumented members, fear of immigration authorities is so great that many never reach out for help. “A lot of these cases we don’t learn about,” said Johnson.

None of the attorneys or organizations I spoke to had heard about Dennis.

Laura, Dennis's mother, searches her house for belongings of her son while he is away in detention, in Hempstead, Long Island on Oct. 19, 2017.

Laura, Dennis’s mother, searches her house for belongings of her son while he is away in detention, in Hempstead, Long Island on Oct. 19, 2017.

Photo: Virginia Lozano for The Intercept

Dennis’s mother is in favor of more police in schools. She wants gang members deported. “They don’t deserve to be in a free country,” she told me. But what happened to her son, she added, is “not fair.”

Last summer, Dennis was almost finished with his gang-prevention program. He had perfect attendance. He was taking summer classes to make up for the time he had missed when he was suspended. Then one day, four officers showed up at his house and demanded to be let in. “They had no papers, no order,” Laura said. “They just said, ‘We have to come in.’” They told her they wanted to speak with Dennis and took him away with them.

“They said they’d bring him back,” she added, “but they didn’t.”

When Dennis didn’t come home that night, Laura called the police. “I was desperate,” she said. “They said, ‘If it’s ICE, then we can’t give you any information.’”

(The ICE official declined to comment on Dennis’s specific case but said that immigration officers are “professionals” and won’t enter a home without a warrant or the resident’s consent. The official also said that the uniforms of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations arm do sometimes say “police.”)

Laura didn’t sleep all night. The following day, Dennis called her from LaGuardia Airport. The officers, who he had thought were police but instead were federal immigration agents, had taken him to an office in Central Islip and accused him of being in a gang, which he denied.

Then they told him, “We have you because you are illegal,” Dennis said. They said they’d bring him to California. They didn’t specify where in California, but he overheard them say something about “Yolo.”

In youth slang, “YOLO” stands for a defiant “you only live once,” but for unaccompanied minors, the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in Northern California is emblematic of the months many of them have wasted away there, effectively imprisoned while waiting for authorization to join relatives and start new lives in the U.S., usually after dangerous journeys across Central America and often after having witnessed unspeakable atrocities back home. The center mostly houses undocumented minors who entered the country alone, as they await court hearings that will determine their fates. But increasingly, the facility has also been receiving not only minors who just crossed the border, but many who have lived in the U.S. for months or years and are suddenly accused by immigration authorities of being affiliated with gangs.

That’s where Dennis was sent. For two months, he slept on a cement bench. He was there because he had been labeled a gang member, but the staff at the detention center saw no evidence of that, according to an official familiar with his case. Eventually, Dennis was sent back to New York, to a lower-security center for undocumented minors run by the Office of Refugee Resettlement, or ORR, just north of New York City. Staff there couldn’t figure out why ICE had labeled Dennis a gang member either. He was quiet, gentle, and confused about how he had ended up there.

School buses sit in a parking lot in Hempstead, Long Island on Oct. 19, 2017.

School buses sit in a parking lot in Hempstead, Long Island, on Oct. 19, 2017.

Photo: Virginia Lozano for The Intercept

In 1982, after a Texas school district started charging undocumented children to attend school, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that they had a right to equal access to public education. In subsequent years, federal courts maintained that it was unconstitutional for schools to share students’ immigration status with federal authorities. Federal agents are required to present a warrant to enter school premises.

A 2011 ICE memo that remains in effect lists schools as “sensitive locations” where officers are not to conduct enforcement operations. That technically also applies to bus stops and drop-off areas, though immigration officials have started arresting parents as they drop off or pick up their kids, and ICE agents have moved increasingly closer to other sensitive locations.

Legal protections haven’t alleviated fears for undocumented students and their families — nor have they stopped lawmakers from threatening to deputize immigration enforcement to schools.

“Do we really have to educate noncitizens?” Oklahoma state Rep. Mike Ritze said last year, proposing to turn non-English-speaking students over to ICE to “see if they truly are citizens.” (Ritze later said he only meant non-English-speaking students with criminal records, adding, “Murder trumps educating a 16-year-old.”)

“The basics of the law are very clear,” said Katherine Culliton-González, a senior counsel at the public policy group Demos, “but some local jurisdictions have excellent policies and other jurisdictions have unconstitutional policies.”

In fact, as public scrutiny of the collaboration between law enforcement and federal officials has ramped up following the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration, “schools haven’t gotten as much attention as police,” she added.

Still, a number of school districts across the country — as well as dozens of colleges and universities — have enacted sanctuary resolutions, pledging to protect students’ data from immigration authorities and instructing staff not to allow federal agents on school premises without warrants. But the term “sanctuary” is largely undefined, advocates warn, cautioning schools not to overstate the level of protection they can offer and to instead be specific about their policies.

“Part of this process is educating school districts that they have the power, to the maximum extent permitted by law, to really better protect their students,” said Linnea Nelson, an education equity staff attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. Nelson called on districts “to draft and pass sanctuary school board policies to really lay out in their own board policies the extent to which they are going to limit cooperation and limit access both to school campuses and to sensitive information.”

“School districts have an obligation to create a safe and inclusive environment for all students,” she added, “regardless of their immigration status.”

Dennis and his mother, Laura, walk out of Nassau criminal court in Hempstead, Long Island on Oct. 19, 2017.

Dennis and his mother, Laura, walk out of criminal court in Hempstead, Long Island, on Oct. 19, 2017.

Photo: Virginia Lozano for The Intercept

Last fall, I met Dennis in criminal court in Hempstead, where he was trying to clear his assault charge. He was dressed up, with a black shirt, black suit pants, polished black shoes, and just a little gel keeping his short hair tightly in place. His mother, who since his return from California had visited him at the ORR-run center when she was able take off work, met him at the court. Dennis, Laura, and their ORR-appointed case manager were given the runaround from one office to the next, then sat waiting for the hearing all morning. But the mother and son cherished that time together. Laura hung on tightly to her son’s arm.

While he waited, Dennis ran into Kristoffer Kuchynskas, a friendly resource coordinator with the court’s adolescent diversion program, who months earlier had recommended to a judge that Dennis participate in the STRONG program. Kuchynskas declined to be interviewed, but he greeted Dennis warmly and told him how sorry he felt for the ordeal he had endured.

“I was so sad when this happened to you, you were doing so great,” he told Dennis, waiting for the case manager to translate the message. “All of this was bad.”

Then Kuchynskas asked the case manager how things were going at the ORR facility. “There are a lot more kids from Long Island now,” he replied with a hint of sarcasm. He also declined to be interviewed, citing the agency’s policies. Kuchynskas didn’t hide his frustration. “These are disenfranchised kids,” he said, “and they get the door shut in their face.”

That day, Dennis’s hearing was postponed. As they left the courthouse, Laura implored Dennis’s case manager to let her take her son out to lunch before driving him back to the ORR facility. The case manager explained that he wasn’t allowed to do that, and that Dennis could only be out for as long as his court date took, but he deliberately slowed down on the way to the parking lot, allowing their last moments together to stretch a little longer. Laura hugged Dennis for what seemed like an interminable time, then cried as he got into the car and watched as he was driven away.

In November, in response to the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit, a federal judge in Northern California ordered that any minors summarily accused of gang affiliation and shipped to detention facilities across the country be given a hearing within a week of their arrest, as well as access to the evidence offered against them.

Since then, ICE has lost a majority of those hearings for lack of evidence — and so far, 27 of the 34 teens identified in the ACLU lawsuit have been released. But that only seems to have made agents intensify their tactics, said Johnson, the Long Island attorney. One of his clients, who in 2016 was nearly killed by gang members on Long Island, was recently detained by ICE agents who interrogated him all night, trying to force a confession. “That was a sign to me that they’re becoming more aggressive in trying to get evidence,” said Johnson, “especially given the fact that he’s obviously a victim; he’s got scars all over his body.”

Even when someone is released from detention for lack of evidence, removal orders remain in place.

Dennis pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct in order to avoid an assault conviction. In November, he was released from the ORR facility and returned home to Long Island. But he remains in deportation proceedings — and his record can put his ability to obtain legal status at risk.

As long as he remains undocumented, ICE agents could come knocking on his door again.

Top photo: A fleet of buses parked behind Brentwood High School, N.Y., in 2017.

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