Weeks after a federal judge ruled that undocumented teens jailed in Yolo County and elsewhere must be given access to judicial hearings if the government wants to keep them incarcerated, 22 of them have been ordered released.
The teens were detained this past summer by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents as part of a broad law-enforcement crackdown in Long Island, N.Y., on the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a violent street gang with ties to El Salvador. President Donald Trump has made eradicating the gang in the U.S. a priority.
The teens’ release came after the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Northern California, ACLU National, the law firm of Cooley LLP and Holly S. Cooper of the UC Davis Immigration Law Clinic filed a class-action suit in August.
The attorneys say many of the teens arrested were unfairly swept up in the law-enforcement action, with little hard evidence connecting them to the gang. After they were arrested and jailed, they were not given the opportunity to plead their cases in front of an impartial judge.
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On Nov. 20, U.S. District Court Judge Vince Chhabria ruled in favor of the suit, ordering the government to provide each teen with a hearing by Nov. 29.
“When these teenagers were given a chance to dispute the charges against them, it became crystal clear that the government’s accusations weren’t backed up by evidence,” said Martin Schenker, a partner at Cooley LLP, in a statement.
In one instance, a teen identified as “F.E.” in court documents had been accused of gang affiliation because of a scrap of paper with “503” written on it – both the country phone code for El Salvador and an MS-13 symbol – and “second- or third-hand hearsay” of gang contact, his attorney Brian Johnson said.
According to the attorneys involved in the class-action suit, out of 34 teenagers originally detained, 22 have been ordered released, and others have hearings that are still in process.
Seven of the undocumented teens, all minors, had been transferred to a high-security detention center in Yolo County earlier this year before being sent to less restrictive facilities outside California while awaiting immigration proceedings.
In an interview with The Bee in August, Brent Cardall, chief probation officer for Yolo County, said the Trump administration had failed to provide evidence that any of the youth sent to his detention center were gang affiliated.
Since their release, many of the teens have been reunited with their families in New York. “These kids have been jailed for months with no opportunity to challenge their wrongful arrests, and their families have been heartsick,” Schenker said. “We’re so glad to see them back home with their loved ones.”
According to UC Davis’ Cooper, many of these undocumented teens came to American to escape violence.
“The primary reason youth flee Central America is because of domestic violence or fear of gang retaliation for their refusal to join a gang,” she said. “Many are seeking asylum, while kids who were abused, abandoned or neglected are seeking protection under special juvenile immigrant visas.”
ICE spokesman James Schwab said the agency “cannot comment on pending litigation.”
Chhabria’s November ruling covered more than just those involved in the class-action suit. As part of his injunction, the judge created a nationwide class of immigrant children in similar circumstances. The government had until Nov. 29 to provide hearings for those children as well. Moving forward, the government will be required to provide hearings within seven days of detention.
“These children were taken from their families based on nothing more than suspicion, they were racially profiled, and in the vast majority of cases the government’s evidence of gang membership turned out to be non existent,” said William Freeman, a senior staff attorney from ACLU of Northern California. “The children are still in immigration proceedings trying to petition the government for the right to stay here.”
Anita Chabria contributed to this story.