How Gang Databases and Detentions Affect Communities

Much like the surveillance of Muslims post-9/11 and the stop-and-frisk of young people of color, the more recent profiling of young Latinos on Long Island and the Hudson Valley as “gang members” or “gang affiliates” is having devastating consequences not only for many innocent individuals, but also for their families and their communities. What’s more, it may well be deterring people who may know something about gang activity from coming forward, for fear of implicating themselves and landing their own name on a database of gang suspects.

In “Swept up in the Sweep: the Impact of Gang Allegations on Immigrant New Yorkers,” a study based on a survey of 43 immigration lawyers and immigration advocates working across New York State, the New York Immigration Coalition and the CUNY School of Law’s Immigrant & Non-Citizen Rights Clinic document the many troubling ways in which school officials, local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have collaborated in sharing information, building databases and initiating raids that have swept up many who have no connection with the gang MS-13, are not engaged in criminal activity, and whose greatest crime may be to have pulled on a Chicago Bulls jersey in the morning.

Because anything from a tattoo to a T-shirt to knowing someone who knows someone else who knows a suspected gang member can land a person on a law enforcement database, young people in some communities “can’t explore, hang out, post gifs, make videos, or use social media,” said Babe Howell, professor at the CUNY School of Law in a conference call in which the study’s authors discussed its findings. “Every aspect of existence of youth exposes them,” added Howell. Evidence and information is cobbled into databases, often without corroboration, and people whose names have been added to these “gang” databases do not know they have been added and do not have the right to challenge their inclusion.

Allegations of gang membership or affiliation, the report notes, has been used to deny asylum or legal permanent residence, and as a pretext to deny applications for benefits or to arrest immigrants.

Emily Torstveit Ngara, visiting associate clinical professor and director of the Deportation Defense Clinic at Hofstra School of Law, described how a joint sweep by local police and ICE typically unfolds in Nassau County: Joint task forces arrive at a Latino business, with local law enforcement entering first. The police demand to see everyone’s IDs, check people for tattoos, even asking some to remove articles of clothing as they look for tattoos. The police make arrests if they have any grounds to. If not, ICE is waiting outside “to pick up anyone they have reasons to believe are removable – and it’s often the IDs that give rise to that,” said Ngara.

NYIC and the CUNY School of Law authors of the study recommend that there be stringent requirements for inclusion on a gang database: That the individual be at least 16 years old, and have been convicted of one gang-motivated violent misdemeanor offense or gang-motivated felony offense. Further, the criteria for inclusion should be published and publicly available. Periodic audits of databases by neutral third parties should be conducted, and names of individuals expunged when necessary.

Coincident with the release of the study, the New York Immigration Coalition filed suit in the Southern District Court of New York to compel Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to provide documentation regarding the government’s “Operation Matador,” which ICE calls “the intelligence driven, unified effort to combat the proliferation of MS-13 and other transnational criminal gang activity in Long Island, the New York City metropolitan area and Hudson Valley.”

Camille Mackler, director of Immigration Legal Policy at the NYIC, said that NYIC wants to learn how Operation Matador was “conceived, staffed and carried out.” ICE denied a previous Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the documentation.

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