LONG ISLAND, NEW YORK– Following a string of murders between 2016 and 2017 in Long Island and Washington, D.C., last year the Trump Administration announced a federal crackdown of the MS-13 gang and called for stricter immigration policies.
For the latest episode of Fault Lines, Al Jazeera’s investigative docu-series, correspondent Natasha del Toro travels to Suffolk County, Long Island to meet some of the hidden victims of these arrests and discovers how, in many cases, unaccompanied minors have been targeted and arrested by local law enforcement without sufficient evidence to tie them to MS-13. Their cases are then passed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“Local law enforcement were looking for some other ways to detain them in the absence of any evidence of wrongdoing,” Paige Austin, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), says in the documentary.
Despite the gang’s relatively small activity in Suffolk County, there are about 400 members for the county’s 1.5 million residents, MS-13 has been linked to at least 17 killings. As a result, the U.S. government has arrested hundreds of people in this region as part of the crackdown, many of them in immigrant neighborhoods, and targeting residents from Central America.
In the documentary, titled “Trump’s War on Gangs,” del Toro explains how many of these youth have been falsely identified as MS-13 members for wearing light-blue clothing, sporting flags from El Salvador, or by sporting any other cultural identifiers. The legal battle, as a result of their arrest, could go on for several months.
“We started hearing reports from kids that so-and-so had been picked up and his parents didn’t even know,” Sergio Argueta, founder of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, says in the documentary. “Like, kids were literally just being disappeared.”
One of the young men featured in the episode, called Juan to protect his identity, was arrested by local law enforcement for a traffic violation. The records from his questioning claim he admitted an affiliation to MS-13, which he denies. Police claimed he was involved in an ongoing murder investigation, and proceeded to handing him over to ICE. The legal battle which ensued lasted nearly six months. His case was part of a class-action lawsuit filed by the NYCLU in 2017.
Meanwhile, ICE claims they “specifically use immigration violations as a means to target MS-13 members and remove them as a threat.”