In Crackdown on MS-13, a New Detention Policy Raises Alarms
The Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center, above, is one of the most restrictive facilities in the country for unaccompanied minors suspected of gang activity.
Junior left for church 10 minutes before 8:00 p.m. on a Monday in June 2017.
A friend came by his father’s home on Long Island to pick him up.
As he approached the building, Junior, who was 15 at the time, noticed four cars behind him. He was glad to see them. The prayer service would be full, he thought.
But the cars were not carrying churchgoers. They belonged to agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I got to the prayer service. I got out of the car and the immigration agents arrested me,” Junior said in an interview for the FRONTLINE documentary The Gang Crackdown.
The agents took Junior to an adult detention center in Manhattan, where he was allowed to make one phone call. His father, George, picked up.
“Are you on your way home?” George asked.
Junior couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened. Nor could he have predicted what would come next. Junior had not committed a crime, but within days, he’d be transferred more than 400 miles away to the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Detention Center in rural Virginia — one of the most restrictive facilities in the country for undocumented minors.
This past summer, the Trump administration ramped up its efforts to arrest and detain suspected gang members for immigration violations. The crackdown has swept up dozens of young undocumented immigrants, like Junior, who arrived in the United States without a parent or guardian. More than 200,000 unaccompanied minors crossed the border on their own in recent years, often fleeing violence and poverty in Central America.
In making its case for these arrests and for tougher immigration laws in general, the administration has repeatedly pointed to violence by the gang MS-13 in communities on Long Island, New York.
Since 2016, MS-13 has been tied to 25 homicides on Long Island, according to local police. Seven out of 13 alleged MS-13 members who were charged with murder last March were unaccompanied minors. ICE has arrested more than 400 people across the area as part of an ongoing series of immigration raids targeting gang members. Around 60 of those arrested came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.
In the middle of the crackdown, known as Operation Matador, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) changed its policies on how it treats minors who are suspected of being in a gang like MS-13.
The new approach — detailed in an August 2017 memo from ORR to the president’s Domestic Policy Council — said unaccompanied minors suspected of “current or past gang affiliation” would now be detained in some of the most restrictive detention facilities available for juveniles. Once detained, ORR would attempt to hold these minors until their 18th birthday before transferring them to ICE, where they would be more likely to be deported.
During a Congressional hearing earlier in the summer, ORR Director Scott Lloyd said the new detention policies for alleged gang members were “one of the first major policy changes” he directed since taking office. The updated rules would complement ORR’s new “Community Safety Initiative” under President Trump, which emerged in the wake of MS-13 violence.
“We want to ensure that the UAC [unaccompanied alien children] we release from our care do not pose a danger to our communities,” he said.
Under U.S. law, ORR must place minors who are apprehended by immigration authorities in “the least restrictive setting” that is in “the best interest of the child.” Around 95 percent of unaccompanied minors are released to a parent or guardian while waiting for their immigration cases to be processed. But a small minority remain in custody. Minors who have been charged with a crime or pose a danger to themselves or others are kept in the highest level of security.
With the change, ORR — once an agency primarily tasked with aiding refugees and asylum seekers — has become a potent and controversial tool in the Trump administration’s fight against MS-13 and its approach to undocumented immigrants.
Bob Carey, the former ORR director under President Obama, described the change as “disturbing.”
“It would not have happened, in my experience, a year ago,” he said.
Carey said minors who are vetted and released to family members and sponsors were virtually never re-arrested by ICE and sent back to ORR custody.
The change has also brought sharp criticism from immigration and civil rights attorneys, who argue that unaccompanied minors are being arrested without sufficient evidence and detained without due process. Many of these minors have been sent to a high-security facility that has faced allegations of routine abuse.
“The government can’t take away your liberty. They can’t lock you up. They can’t take away your property unless they give you a hearing in front of a neutral person like a judge where you can hear the evidence against you and respond to it,” said ACLU of Northern California’s Julia Harumi Mass, the lead attorney in a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration involving 34 unaccompanied minors.
The ORR memo detailing these policies, dated August 16, 2017, and reviewed by FRONTLINE reveals how the agency has ramped up efforts to help investigate and detain unaccompanied minors, increase its “secure” bed capacity, and to partner more closely with both federal authorities and local law enforcement in New York, Virginia and Texas.
And whereas all releases from secure facilities used to be approved by a minor’s case manager and received final sign-off from ORR headquarters, now, the agency director himself must personally approve all such releases.
The government’s efforts to target unaccompanied minors for alleged gang activity “is a national operation,” said Mass, who reviewed the memo as part of the ACLU’s lawsuit.
“Long Island was a testing ground, a pilot program, but this is supposed to be rolled out throughout the country,” she said.
Junior arrived at the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center, nestled between the Blue Ridge mountains and the Allegheny peaks, at the beginning of the summer.
He was kept in a tiny cell without a window. At times, he spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, according to his attorney.
“You can never see the sun or the moon,” said Junior, who asked to be identified only by his first name due to safety concerns. “Being at that place is like a living hell … I don’t wish that upon anyone.”
The detention center serves incarcerated youth between the ages of 10 and 17.
But unlike many detainees at Shenandoah, Junior never had a run in with the criminal justice system.
He was sent there because ICE suspected that he belonged to MS-13 — which he denies. Junior says that before coming to the U.S., he was targeted by MS-13 members in his hometown in Honduras. At his high school on Long Island, he experienced a similar situation.
“I was scared when they would talk to me about gangs,” he said. “They would ask me if I wanted to be one of them. And I would tell them no.”
The basis for his arrest was spelled out in an ICE memo drafted four days before Junior was apprehended outside of church.
The memo included information from Junior’s school — a pattern that emerged in the midst of Operation Matador. The document alleged that Junior had MS-13 drawings in his school work. It also noted that the Suffolk County Police Department saw Junior with “multiple other known MS-13 gang members.”
Junior was suspended from school a few months earlier for allegedly harassing another student and “maintaining possession of material that referenced” MS-13. Junior denies these claims and his lawyers say the school never provided any evidence. Officials from the school declined to comment.
Angel Melendez, the special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in New York, said agents rely on information provided by the Suffolk County police in order to make arrests, including from police officers who are embedded in public schools.
FRONTLINE reviewed around a dozen cases involving unaccompanied minors who were picked up by ICE partly due to evidence collected in schools. Indicators of “gang activity” used to justify these arrests included writing the number “503,” the area code of El Salvador, in a notebook; wearing black Nike Cortez sneakers; a Brooklyn Nets hat; and being seen affiliating with “known MS-13 gang members.”
Inside Shenandoah, Junior’s physical and mental health declined rapidly. After long hours confined to this cell, he says he grew desperate.
“I took my shirt off and made a rope and I put it around my neck and I started to attempt suicide,” he said.
As he began to lose consciousness, Junior started to think about his father, George.
“The only thing I thought about was that my dad loves me, and I love him too,” he said. “I thought about my dad … and I loosened the noose.”
Staff members at the center forced their way into Junior’s cell and stopped him from killing himself. Then, Junior says they stripped him of his clothes and belongings.
“They put me on restriction, with no clothes,” he said. “They took everything away from me. I was suffering through the cold for a week.”
His experience at Shenandoah is not unique.
In October, the Washington Lawyers Committee, a civil rights group, filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all immigrant youth who have been detained at the facility. The committee alleges that the center violated the constitutional rights of these minors, including their rights to be “kept physically safe and secure” and “free from excessive use of force.” The group says that young immigrants who are detained at Shenandoah are subject to physical and verbal abuse by staff members.
Children are routinely locked in solitary rooms for up to 14 hours a day, according to the lawsuit. One child was allegedly called a “Mexican monkey” by a staff member. Others were allegedly called “criminal” and told that the only way to leave the detention center was to be deported.
Several detainees reported being completely stripped of their clothing, including their underwear, as a form of punishment. The lawsuit also claims that immigrant youth are regularly subjected to substandard medical and mental health care.
Representatives from the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center wrote in a statement to FRONTLINE that they believe the allegations are “without merit” and intend to “present evidence at trial that will allow a jury to reach the same conclusion.”
On the morning of his 16th birthday, Junior woke up in a new detention facility in Dobbs Ferry, New York. After spending two months in Virginia, he was stepped down to a less restrictive facility where he could sleep in a dorm room.
His father, George, and his employer, Arnold, drove an hour-and-a-half to celebrate with him at the facility.
They bought six pizzas and a chocolate cake with vanilla icing.
Junior and around a dozen other detained teens gathered around ping pong tables and weight lifting equipment in the basement. Junior hugged his dad tightly. After the party, he called his grandmother in Honduras.
Around this time, ORR director Lloyd wrote a letter to say that his agency did not consider Junior to be “a danger to the community or a risk of flight.” Then, in late October, Junior appeared before an immigration judge in New York City. The judge agreed with Lloyd’s assessment and recommended Junior’s release.
Yet, he remained in detention as ORR continued to evaluate whether his father was a suitable sponsor.
Junior was finally released one month later as a result of the ACLU’s class-action lawsuit on behalf of unaccompanied minors detained over gang allegations.
A federal judge in California ruled that the Trump administration must provide convincing evidence of gang membership in order to justify detaining a minor.
“By shipping the minors across the country for indefinite detention in a high-security facility before providing that hearing, the government has violated their due process rights,” he wrote in the November opinion.
Going forward, all unaccompanied minors who are arrested by ICE over alleged gang activity must now receive a hearing within seven days. The ruling, however, does not protect unaccompanied minors who have turned 18.
So far, 31 out of the 34 minors have received a hearing — 29 have been released due to insufficient evidence.
“It’s almost everyone,” said Mass from the ACLU of Northern California. “Arresting children, separating them from their families, detaining them and not giving them a hearing, that’s an abuse of power.”
The ruling, however, has not affected ORR’s plans to build its capacity to detain more unaccompanied minors. During President Trump’s first year in office, the agency expanded its number of beds in high security facilities like Shenandoah by around 50 percent.
In August, Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center was awarded a $3.9 million year-long contract to offer 30 additional beds. ORR has cited the uptick in ICE arrests of unaccompanied minors with suspected gang ties as one of the reasons to secure more beds.
Junior was one of the first unaccompanied minors to be released after the class-action ruling.
He returned to Long Island in time to spend Christmas with his dad.
He says the experience in detention transformed him.
“If I hadn’t been through all that, I wouldn’t have wanted to take my life,” Junior said. “They have to investigate things better … I was in jail five months, almost six months, for something that I didn’t do, and that was unjust.”