Last year we introduced you to Henry Lemus Calderon, an undocumented teen living legally on Nantucket under an Obama era law protecting unaccompanied minors. Two years ago, Calderon was arrested by immigration and customs enforcement agents and charged with being a member of the notorious 18th Street gang. But civil rights groups say ICE often gets those ID’s wrong and they argue that school police officers are sometimes the source of the dispute.
A just-released nationwide survey of immigration lawyers finds mounting concern that police and immigration authorities are making false gang allegations against undocumented young men. Attorney Jeffrey Ruben says the main problem is that school resource officers use the term “gang” too freely in their reports, which can end up in the hands of ICE. Ruben represents Calderon, who was held for two years as a suspected gang member. In that instance, Nantucket police shared information with ICE about a single suspicion contained in a school police report connecting Calderon to a gang.
“It's kind of like being accused of being a Salem witch. Once that label attaches, I mean how do you get out from under it.” Ruben says the immigration judge hearing the case even acknowledged that the gang label was based on no more than “inference” and “hearsay”. But the immigration court refused 19-year old Calderon’s request to be released on bail. He had no better luck when the case came before the Board of Immigration Appeals, says Ruben.
“In fact, The Board of Immigration Appeals had this to say: “that these indications are based on allegations and hearsay contained in police reports does not persuade us that the immigration judge's decision should be reversed.”
In Boston, Police Commissioner Bill Evans says his officers who work in schools have a rigorous process to determine whether in fact a student is in a gang, and inference and hearsay won't cut it.
“We have a ten point scaling system, which a certain person has to meet before they’re even mentioned as gang member. Unless you commit a serious offense in this city we're not cooperating with ICE.”
Adriana Lafaille of the ACLU of Massachusetts says, “I'm glad to see that Commissioner Evans has a policy of not sharing information with ICE. [But] around the state we see that reports by school resource officers are making their way into the hands of the Department of Homeland Security even when there is nothing more than the mere contact between two individuals who were seen together.”
Advocates point to East Boston as an example of the dangers of labeling students as gang members. After an argument at the high school there among mainly Latino students, one teen was identified by a school resource officer as an MS-13 gang member and whisked away by ICE early last year.
Matt Cregor, a staff attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of Boston, says the teen in question was standing by during a non-violent confrontation between two other students and was identified as a gang member by an SRO.
“In this instance we have a piece of information about students that went straight from a Boston Public School employee, a school police officer, and eventually to the hands of ICE through the Boston Regional Intelligence Center.”
The Boston Regional Intelligence Center - or BRIC - is run by Homeland Security, and allows ICE, Boston Police, the FBI and other investigators to work together to assess regional dangers. And concern about MS-13 and the 18th Street gangs is high on their list. But Commissioner Evans says the East Boston case is not the example that people think it is.
“You know, there's one incident in East Boston where someone put in the report, one of my officers, he claimed to be an MS-13. Well we got that from him [the student]. And that's important to us, because right now there’s MS-13 killing 18th Street. So, you know we don't do it to harass. We do it to keep our community safe and to keep these kids safe so they're not killing each other.”
While police commissioner Evans denies targeting suspected gang members in cooperation with ICE, civil rights groups want to be sure. At their urging the Boston City Council on Tuesday is holding a public hearing to consider instituting strict guidelines prohibiting police and school officials from “collecting and sharing information” with Federal agents about people not engaged in criminal activity, including undocumented students. Like the Boston Police, Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang believes such a policy is unnecessary.
“We do not share information with law enforcement. Even when compelled by the courts, we will push back where we can. It is not our job to say this young person is a gang member. We don't have the expertise to do that and nor should we. That's not our jurisdiction.”
Chang, who grew up in gang-heavy Los Angeles, says it is just too easy to buy into stereo-types of what a Central American gang member looks like when the specter of gangs is being used by politicians.
“And especially in a culture where there is so much federal leadership compounding this bias among communities of color and immigrant communities. It makes it even harder.”
Yet other Massachusetts communities seem more than willing to work with ICE. In our story on Henry Lemus Calderon, officers on Nantucket said the gang threat is too great not to take every accusation seriously. But in late May, two years after being arrested and seven months after our series questioning allegations of gang involvement, Calderon was finally released from the Bristol County Jail's immigration wing. Attorney Jeffrey Ruben says that his client will now apply for a Green Card and try to get on with the rest of his life.
For more, see investigative reporter Philip Martin's series The Gangs Of Nantucket, about MS-13 presence on the island.