By Painting Asylum Seekers as ‘Violent Animals,’ Trump Unlocked a School-to-Deportation Pipeline

The teens caught in this cycle are mostly Central American boys, many of whom fled their native countries to the United States to escape the gang membership they are now accused of. The evidence used to allege their gang ties would be laughable if it didn’t have such dire consequences.

[Photo: A boy stands watching a movie in a detention center. A border patrol officer stands near him]
What adds to the anxiety, depression, and frustration of young people in ORR custody is that no one can provide them with any answers as to why they're being subjected to mandatory detention. John Moore/Getty Images

This is the first article in a two-part series at Rewire.News on the school-to-deportation pipeline. Read the second piece in the series here.

Public outrage quickly followed President Donald Trump’s recent racist tirade calling undocumented immigrants “animals” and a White House statement titled, “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13.” But last week wasn’t the first time Trump and his administration used this language.

At a July 2017 rally held on Long Island, New York, Trump declared that MS-13 members responsible for gang-related killings in the United States are “animals.” “They’re going to jails,” Trump yelled, “and then they’re going back to their country.”

The president and his administration often conflate gang members, of which there are about 2,000 on Long Island, and asylum-seeking migrant children. In his July speech, he noted how “more than 150,000 unaccompanied alien minors arrived at the border and were released all throughout our country into United States’ communities—at a tremendous monetary cost to local taxpayers and also a great cost to life and safety.”

And we saw this two months after Trump’s speech, in September 2017, when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions parroted Trump’s promises to send alleged gang members to jail while speaking to federal law enforcement officials in Boston: “We are now working with the Department of Homeland Security [DHS] and HHS [the Department of Health and Human Services] to examine the unaccompanied minors issue and the exploitation of that program by gang members who come to this country as wolves in sheep clothing,” Sessions said.

Stories from immigrant children and their lawyers suggest the administration is crying wolf. An internal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) review found that less than 2 percent of children in its care have direct gang ties. Many of the other children it appears have been falsely accused of gang ties for things as trivial as wearing shoelaces of a particular color, holding up a peace sign in a photo posted on their personal social media, or giving a classmate the finger.

Even so, as recently as this week at a congressional hearing, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) Director L. Francis Cissna, a Trump appointee who infamously removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from the agency’s mission statement, bolstered Trump’s narrative linking Central American asylum-seeking minors to violent gangs.

“Violent street gangs such as MS-13 have targeted [unaccompanied alien children] and other Central American immigrant youth for recruitment,” Cissna said at the May 22 hearing. “Dozens of suspected gang members arrested in recent successful anti-gang operations, such as ICE Homeland Security Investigations’ ‘Operation Raging Bull,’ were found to have originally entered this country as [unaccompanied alien children]. We must come to terms with the effects of [unaccompanied alien children] on our orderly immigration processes.”

This rhetoric around MS-13 is stoking an on-edge community to make accusations that have far-reaching consequences. With increasing frequency, school officials are using vague criteria to funnel immigrant teens into the school-to-deportation pipeline by accusing the minors of gang membership. These accusations are shared with local law enforcement, who in turn cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). At the same time, a new policy implemented by ORR Director Scott Lloyd reinforces the idea, pushed by Trump and his administration, that these unaccompanied immigrant minors are “bad guys,” leading to prolonged detention in high security facilities, separated families, and the further deterioration of the right to due process in the United States.

The teens caught in this cycle are mostly Central American boys, many of whom fled their native countries to the United States to escape the gang membership they are now accused of. The evidence used to allege their gang ties would be laughable if it didn’t have such dire consequences. In the case of David, a Central American teen highlighted in an Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC) survey, a school safety officer accused the high school student of being in a gang because he stood next to another student at school believed to be in a gang and because one student reported they heard from another student that David was involved with a gang. With this information, an immigration judge eventually found that David was gang-involved, denied his lawful permanent resident application as well as an application for asylum, and ordered him deported to a country where he feared for his life. During the entirety of this ordeal, David was detained in ORR custody for a year and a half.

Legal experts told Rewire.News that over the last two years, immigrant families have frantically contacted them with stories of ICE detaining their children, who are left to languish in ORR custody. For many affected families, their stories began with an ICE raid.

ICE’s Operation Matador made nationwide headlines last June for its arrest of what ICE said was 45 “confirmed” gang members and affiliates, but people—and especially undocumented immigrants—are labeled as gang members for completely subjective reasons, and often with flimsy evidence.

While MS-13 has been a deadly force on Long Island, responsible for an estimated 25 murders in two years, Operation Matador didn’t necessarily target the perpetrators of these crimes. Rather, according to PBS’ Frontline, it swept up immigrant teens fleeing gang violence in their countries of origin, only to be unlawfully detained and accused of gang affiliation in the United States.

Members of the Trump administration have spent a lot of time on Long Island talking about MS-13 and the transnational gang’s brutality as a way of justifying harsh immigration policies. Perhaps this is why Trump always conveniently leaves out the fact that MS-13 actually started in the United States and spread because of the country’s deportation policies. Trump also regularly conflates the gang with immigrants, despite the fact that many of its members are U.S. citizens. Moreover, law enforcement officials who spoke with the New York Times at local, state, and federal levels described “the Trump administration’s hard-charging campaign against MS-13 as out of proportion with the threat.”

And yet, as Media Matters has found, ICE has “repeatedly used ambiguous criteria to wrongfully accuse undocumented Latino immigrants of being affiliated with gangs—often … MS-13—as a pretense to arrest them …. There have been a number of reports that ICE uses vague and sometimes overly broad criteria to wrongfully label a person as affiliated with a gang, which allows officers to arrest people without a criminal warrant,” the organization reported.

ICE also relies on information from state-level gang databases that have been compiled by local law enforcement as a way of targeting undocumented immigrants. This is why advocacy groups attempted to block access to state-level databases when Trump took office. like to one in California. The fear was that “the Trump administration will use it to deport unauthorized immigrants who’ve been erroneously labeled as gang members,” Yvette Cabrera of the Voice of OC reported in a December 2016 article.

Even in seemingly progressive California, the state immigration attorneys surveyed by ILRC report seeing the most gang allegations emerge against undocumented clients, the CalGang database is rife with rampant flaws. As Rewire.News reported, an audit of the database found that it included 42 toddlers entered into the system before the age of 1 and contained information that may violate the privacy rights of those in the database, Cabrera noted. Perhaps more troubling, auditors of the CalGang database found instances in which local law enforcement put individuals in the database “without adequate evidence, failed to purge CalGang records that had not been updated within five years, and poorly implemented a state law requiring that juveniles and their parents are notified before the minor is placed in the database,” reported Cabrera. Local law enforcement enters individuals into gang databases for subjective reasons, based on tattoos, style of dress, or whether they live in a “known gang area,” all of which unlawfully racially profiles youth of color.

Rachel Prandini, a staff attorney at the ILRC and co-author of Deportation By Any Means Necessary, told Rewire.News that, as a tactic, prior administrations used gang membership to justify detention and deportation, but that it’s “ramped up to a whole new level” with the Trump administration.

“It’s actually very different in immigration court because no criminal conviction is required. No level of evidence has to be put forth. No definition of ‘gang member,’ ‘associate,’ or ‘affiliate’ has to exist. Once the specter of gang membership is raised, it becomes the job of the victim and their attorney, if they’re lucky enough to have one, to prove they’re not a gang member and because the criteria is so vague and the evidence so flimsy, basically all they have is their word against the federal government’s,” Prandini said.

Scott Lloyd Strikes Again

Once teens are in the immigration system as gang members, they are funneled into high-security, prison-like facilities for children in ORR custody. As a result of being detained in this high-security setting, they are then subjected to prolonged detention because of a policy implemented by Scott Lloyd within hours of stepping into his role as ORR director.

Scott Lloyd has become an infamous ideologue in the Trump administration, most well-known for his seemingly never-ending battle to block immigrant teens in ORR custody from accessing abortion care. His handling of abortion access has led to a firestorm of publicity, with advocates accusing him of ushering “anti-choice fanaticism” into the U.S. immigration system and members of Congress calling for him to be fired.

Less known is Lloyd’s policy requiring that he personally approve any release to a sponsor of an immigrant child that had at one time been in heightened supervision custody placement. This decision was made without any analysis or even a count of how many children would be affected by the policy, according to a statement from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU). In a deposition with NYCLU attorneys, who are suing ORR to end the practice, Lloyd also said that the only documents he considered before instituting the policy were news reports about the criminal activity of immigrant minors. In other words, the sole basis of Lloyd’s decision to implement his new policy is the rhetoric employed by the Trump administration conflating immigrant minors with violent gang members.

This means that in states like New York, where dozens of Central American teens on Long Island have been funneled into the school-to-deportation pipeline, children are now detained on average for eight months. Twenty percent have been detained for over a year.

NYCLU estimates that since Lloyd took the helm of ORR, his policy has affected more than 700 children. Only 12 percent of these young people have been released to an adult sponsor, a stark contrast to the 90 percent of all children in ORR custody who were released within 35 to 45 days in previous years.

While the word usually used for the facilities that contract with ORR to house immigrant children is “shelters,” vastly different facilities contract with the agency, including foster care, group homes, shelters, staff secure facilities, secure facilities, and residential treatment centers. In their own way, they are all akin to detention because they are used to detain immigrant children against their will and restrict their freedom. While foster care, group homes, shelters and staff secure facilities are supposed to have higher standards of care and offer more mobility to undocumented young people than ICE detention centers offer immigrant adults, ORR’s secure facilities are very much like ICE detention centers. ORR refers to these detention centers as “juvenile delinquency facilities.”

Young people also get funneled into staff-secure facilities. Though they are less prison-like than secure facilities, staff-secure facilities don’t offer immigrant children the same level of mobility as shelter facilities. For example, only staff members can check them in and out of areas of a staff-secure facility and activities outside detention are limited.

Paige Austin, a staff attorney at NYCLU, told Rewire.News in a phone interview that kids placed in staff-secure facilities do not pose a danger and the most common reason for their placement in these facilities is unaddressed mental health issues that make it difficult for them to behave in a confined setting with “very strict rules governing their custody.”

“In other words, they have a lot of trauma and they’re in these unfamiliar facilities away from their families where they are confined,” said Austin, lead attorney on the NYCLU lawsuit challenging ORR.

ORR has had practices in place to evaluate children and their proposed family sponsors, but there is another problem besides Lloyd’s new policy that is affecting the prolonged detention of young people: Under Lloyd’s policies, there is no guidance for ORR-contracted facilities to evaluate when a child is ready to be referred to Lloyd for release. They also don’t know what to do to prepare the child for referral because there is no guidance on how Lloyd is making his case-by-base determinations regarding their “dangerousness.” So, the kids languish in custody.

“In a child welfare context, this situation is completely unparalleled,” Austin said. “You have children being separated from their families for eight months and counting, because the length of their detainments is getting longer each day, and there is no review or monitoring being done for the reason behind the prolonged detention.”

Dr. Satsuki Ina’s family was detained on an internment camp when she was a child. Now, a licensed family therapist, Ina has become an outspoken advocate against the practice of detaining children and has interviewed children subjected to prolonged detention. According to the therapist, Central American children who are detained have already experienced a great deal of trauma, both in their countries of origin and while migrating to the United States. Being detained only exacerbates this trauma, she said.

“Being separated from their families is traumatic, and so is being detained. In detention, it is not at all uncommon for children to have mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem,” Ina told Rewire.News in a phone interview.

Psychological and Emotional Harm

Because of the Obama-era decision to bring back family detention—the practice of detaining parents alongside their young children in prison-like settings—studies conducted by human rights groups and advocacy organizations sought to better understand the consequences of prolonged detention on minors. The research found that young people subjected to prolonged detention report feeling depressed, anxious, and in many cases, suicidal.

A psychiatrist reviewed the files of immigrant children subjected to prolonged detention as part of Lloyd’s new policy and found that not only did they all have significant histories of trauma, but that their symptoms were exacerbated in custody. One child referred to Lloyd for release attempted suicide and was hospitalized while awaiting the ORR director’s decision. “Another who was recommended for release by social workers and awaiting an overdue release decision by the director was subject to sexual abuse by a staff member at the facility where he was detained,” according to a statement from NYCLU.

“There are two expert declarations included in our case, one from a psychiatrist and the other from a social worker. Both describe in painful detail the range of psychological and emotional harm inflicted on these kids. It’s actually more uncommon for kids who have been subjected to prolonged detention to not to be exhibiting symptoms of anxiety, depression, and [post-traumatic stress disorder],” Austin said. “The immediate symptoms do lessen as soon as they’re released, but we also know there are long-term effects on their mental and physical health. Additional delays on their release, as we’re seeing time and time again in ORR, are really harmful.”

What adds to the anxiety, depression, and frustration of young people in ORR custody is that no one can provide them with any answers as to why they’re subjected to mandatory detention. Lloyd’s new policy has stripped authority from officials at the local level and because the director has provided no oversight, guidance, or explanation of his policy, local officials can’t explain to kids in their custody—or to the parents waiting for their release—why they aren’t being released, when they will be released, or what needs to be done to get them released.

“It really deepens their hopelessness and mistrust. They just keep getting told by their care provider that they’ll get to go home ‘soon,’ but what is soon when six months have passed?” Austin said.

Some of the young people in ORR custody are in their late teens and if they age out of ORR while in its custody—meaning they turn 18 while in ORR custody—they will be transferred to ICE detention centers. As adults, the protections they had as undocumented minors no longer apply and they can be subject to further detainment or deportation.

“In his deposition, Lloyd didn’t tell us his goal was to transfer these teens to ICE custody, but that’s what’s happening in practice,” Austin said. “The kids impacted by Lloyd’s policy are going to ICE at rates more than double other kids. It may not be the point of his policy, but once a kid turns 18, they’re no longer ORR’s problem.”

Read part two of the series on the school-to-deportation pipeline here.