Watch: How a Crackdown on MS-13 Swept Up Immigrant Teens

February 12, 2018
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by Patrice Taddonio Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist

In a spate of brutal violence that has become a focal point of President Donald Trump’s immigration agenda, 25 dead bodies have been found on Long Island since 2016 — all linked to the violent gang MS-13. Many of the gang’s victims, like its members, have been immigrants.

On Tuesday, February 13, in The Gang Crackdown, FRONTLINE investigates the impact of the gruesome killings and the resulting anti-gang crackdown on Long Island — and explores how as part of “Operation Matador,” the Department of Homeland Security’s major anti-MS-13 operation in the region, immigrant teens have been swept up, accused of gang affiliation and unlawfully detained.

In the above scene from The Gang Crackdown, meet Junior and Jesus, two immigrant teens who arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America, and were later apprehended in “Operation Matador.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) apprehended Junior while he was on his way to church. Jesus was apprehended at the restaurant where he worked. Both teens had been identified as gang members in ICE memos containing information from public high schools. FRONTLINE found that school resource officers, who are police embedded in local schools, collected information that was in turn shared with federal immigration authorities.

But as FRONTLINE reports, lawyers found problems with those memos. The memo for Jesus contained unsubstantiated evidence and gave him an incorrect last name, according to his attorney. And FRONTLINE obtained copies of other gang memos that lawyers said contained mistakes and discrepancies.

Yet, both Junior and Jesus — who deny any gang affiliation — would be held for months in high-security facilities without a hearing to contest the evidence against them. As The Gang Crackdown explores, their stories are part of a pattern in which law enforcement has increasingly partnered with ICE to target minors who are perceived as threats for detention and deportation, in ways that advocates say violate their right to due process.

“I remember our office would get calls almost every Friday or so beginning around June or July where we’d hear from a family saying, ‘Our kid was just taken from us. We don’t know where he is,'” Philip Desgranges of the New York Civil Liberties Union tells FRONTLINE in the film.

As the documentary reports, a class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of California — where some minors from Long Island were sent — would lead to the release of at least 27 minors who were found to have been detained without sufficient evidence.

Get the full story on “Operation Matador” in The Gang Crackdown. As President Trump cites MS-13’s violence on Long Island to call for tougher immigration policies and justify ramping up deportations, the documentary is a gripping, must-watch look at how anti-gang efforts have played out in Long Island.

The Gang Crackdown airs Tuesday, February 13 at 10 p.m. EST/9 p.m. CST on PBS (check local listings) and will stream in full, for free, online at pbs.org/frontline.

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