‘Inflated’ allegations of gang affiliation used to detain immigrants, advocacy group charges

"We were increasingly worried that they were using these tactics to carry out anti-immigrant policy goals."

Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), conducted Operation Raging Bull. CREDIT: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/ Keith Gardner
Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), in conjunction with U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), conducted Operation Raging Bull. CREDIT: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/ Keith Gardner

Federal and state agencies allegedly detain immigrants on “inflated” and “loose” associations to gang membership, immigrant advocates claimed after submitting a recent Freedom of Request Information request to multiple federal agencies last week.

In its FOIA request, the advocacy group New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC) called on law enforcement agencies to turn over documents relating to Operation Matador, a collaborative enforcement operation effort led by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency targeting immigrants with suspected gang associations to the MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha gang on Long Island, New York. According to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) data, 350 people were arrested on charges of being in the country illegally or on unrelated criminal charges since May. The operation began in 2005 under Operation Community Shield, which targets gang members and their associates, according to the ICE agency.

On a recent press call with reporters, the NYIC alleged Operation Matador used unknown criteria to define “gang affiliation,” “gang membership,” or “gang associate” during arrests. This allowed federal agents to use gang enforcement as a “pretext to arrest immigrants,” an allegation that an ICE agent appeared to substantiate to CBS News in mid-November, and making it difficult for immigrants to prove their innocence. The FOIA request was filed against ICE, HSI, and the Nassau and Suffolk police departments as a way to know more about internal operations, shared memos between agencies, and other materials used to train officers to identify gangs.

“When you do an operation… and say the point of the operation is to go after MS-13 gang members, but then it’s led by immigration enforcement agencies and it only targets immigrant communities… it’s very much linking it to immigration,” Camille Mackler, Director of Immigration Legal Policy at NYIC, told ThinkProgress in a phone interview in late November.

Advocates like Mackler and other experts fear that arrests based on loose ties to gangs could disrupt immigrants’ ability to apply for eligible benefits. It would also be especially difficult to lose the gang label in the future and further prove gang ties don’t exist when the ties weren’t there in the first place.

“How [do] gang allegations come up when individuals are interacting with immigration, either when defending themselves from deportation or applying for benefits,” Mackler questioned, explaining that her organization’s FOIA request aimed in part to reveal that the gang accusations alone could hurt the adjudication process for immigrants.

As a case in point, Mackler pointed to anecdotal evidence from lawyers who say that young Central American immigrant minors coming to the United States alone and applying for the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) visa had been asked to provide more evidence after having been accused of being gang members.

“We were increasingly worried that they were using these tactics to carry out anti-immigrant policy goals.”

“Suddenly, their attorneys are getting requests for additional evidence or notices of intent to deny specifically alleging gang ties of some sort in numbers we haven’t seen before,” Mackler explained. “Sometimes they seem almost boilerplate, as in [the federal immigration agency] didn’t go through the file and actually find a gang tie — they have this boilerplate language that they use.”

Because every grant of an immigration benefit — such as the SIJS visa, asylum, or green card — is approved under the government’s discretion, authorities could use the gang allegations as reason enough to stir up public safety or national security concerns and deny applications.

“We were increasingly worried that they were using these tactics to carry out anti-immigrant policy goals,” Mackler added. Since President Donald Trump took office, thousands of immigrants have been arrested regardless of the severity of their crimes. Those arrests include people detained during annual check-ins with their local ICE offices or “collateral” arrests of people with immigration violations who happened to be in the vicinity of other immigrants getting arrested.

The MS-13 gang has had several national moments of recognition, with the Trump administration tying their criminal activities within the framework of an allegedly dangerous undocumented population. The president blames the gang for the ongoing opioid crisis in America, even as it appears the gang has little to do with international drug trafficking. At least one former Republican gubernatorial candidate invoked the gang to scare up opposition over immigrant-friendly cities. And White House administration officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions used MS-13 to support harsh immigration enforcement techniques that keep immigrants detained longer and more at risk for deportation.

MS-13 has its origins in Los Angeles, CA, and as The Atlantic reported, deported members took violent tactics learned from U.S. gangs back to El Salvador. To be clear, Salvadoran gang members are generally young and violent. The gang has also forced a generation of Salvadorans on the run into the United States. The transnational gang makes money through extortion and has extensive reach across the United States and in immigrant communities on Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk Counties.

In spite of MS-13’s reach, experts like Dr. Babe Howell, Professor at CUNY School of Law who studied gang affiliations for a decade, say that gang databases are notoriously error-prone and can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, Howell explained that police officers could take photos of tattoos on people in custody and then submit those tattoos into the gang database. In turn, those people could now be labeled as gang members because their tattoos are in the database.

“You say ‘gang member’ and it’s over.”

Gang labels in both the criminal justice and immigration realms are bad, but it could also be argued that immigrants face an additional consequence of being put into deportation proceedings.

“You say ‘gang member’ and it’s over,” Howell told ThinkProgress in a phone interview in late November. “[The government] imposes very high bail. [Immigrants are] detained, pressured, and are often held on conspiracy charges and conduct of others.”

“In California, at least, they actually have gang squads that make kids pull up their shirts and they’ll take pictures of tattoos and enter that into the database so it becomes self-referential,” Howell said. “It’s like, ‘I think you’re a gang member, I take pictures of your tattoos, now those are gang-identifying tattoos.'”

One of the problematic issues is that so many things can be considered gang labels, including a Yankees cap, a certain shirt color worn in certain neighborhoods, or even music videos where young musicians rap about “pop[ping]” (shooting) someone for being in the wrong neighborhood.

“We’re taking seriously the ‘don’t come into my hood or I’ll pop your ass’ or whatever else they say,” Howell continued. “But I’ll look at the same video and say, ‘wow that’s really good production value, that kid really was serious about music and videos’ so [law enforcement] are using that as evidence that so-and-so are in gangs too.”

Interestingly enough Howell said research finds that trained gang enforcement officers are just as implicitly biased to believe someone is in a gang as untrained civilians and law enforcement officers.

“It re-biases them. They work with a unit that looks for gang symbols wherever they go, that focus on gangs, that also conflate rap videos — the artistic work of these kids — as gang-related,” Howell said.

Still, being labeled as a gang member for immigrants has a ripple effect beyond being denied immigration benefits within the United States. Once deported, the immigrant continues to be stigmatized with the label, Howell explained, and the receiving country treats that person as such.

“One of the problems with using gang allegations as a basis for removals is that the receiving countries typically treat the removed person, the deportee, as a gang member as well,” Howell said. “They will almost automatically have one potential connection, which is to stay and work with the gang. The policy of removing people based on known or suspected gang affiliation — even if it’s accurate– it’s a way of building up gang problems and creating transnational organizations.”

“So we’re taking kids who fled gangs, whose families brought them here away from gangs, and we’re putting them in the most vulnerable positions to becoming real gang members,” Howell said.