U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Washington, D.C./Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Washington, D.C./Photo: Diego M. Radzinschi/ALM

The New York Civil Liberties Union has sued to compel the Suffolk County Police Department to answer a freedom-of-information request aimed at fleshing out the department’s alleged role in identifying and detaining immigrant students accused of MS-13 gang involvement.

The civil rights group claims it has been stonewalled by the police department since lodging an extensive Freedom of Information Law request last Aug. 1. In a statement issued Tuesday, the NYCLU said it is concerned that cooperation between the police department, the South Country Central School District in the county and federal immigration authorities has led to dozens of children being removed from their families, placed in restrictive detention facilities, and sent into deportation proceedings “based on spurious claims of gang affiliation.”

The FOIL request seeks to unearth details about the police department’s role in what the NYCLU portrays as a coordinated but flawed effort among the local and federal government entities to root out the supposed gang members, who often have ties to El Salvador or other Latin American countries. For instance, the request asks for records relating to: (1) the number of minors identified by the police department as gang members while officers have cooperated with the school district, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security, (2) the policies and guidance officers have used in recognizing supposed gang affiliation, (3) policies related to the department’s use of gang databases, (4) agreements between the police department and federal immigration agencies, and (5) instructions from the police department to the school district relating to the identification of gang members.

So far, according to the NYCLU’s statements and its Article 78 lawsuit lodged on Monday in Suffolk County Supreme Court, the civil rights group has received nothing.

“Eight months after filing our records requests, New Yorkers still have no answers from the Suffolk police about its role in the Trump administration’s immigration dragnet,” NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman said.

President Donald Trump, in pressing the case to supporters and the nation that the United States’ immigration laws are weak and must be strengthened to stop immigrants, particularly violent ones, from entering illegally, has repeatedly referred to the “dangerous” MS-13 gang members he says have flooded Suffolk County’s streets.

The Suffolk County police department said it does not comment on pending litigation.

In the lawsuit, the NYCLU says that it first exhausted the administrative appeal route, after getting no documents from the police department in response to its FOIL request, and that therefore a suit was in order.

“As of the filing of the petition, the SCPD has not provided a single document, claimed any exemptions, or responded to the administrative appeal,” the suit states.

In its news release, the group also explained that in the summer of 2017, it began receiving complaints from families that ICE was targeting their children for removal after school officials had, in coordination with the police, disciplined students for gang involvement “based on flimsy evidence and vague criteria.”

At Bellport High School, for instance, the school’s vague dress code policy says that clothing determined by police to be gang-related is not allowed, yet neither the police nor the school informs students what items are prohibited, the organization says.

One student was suspended without warning after he wore a shirt with a small Chicago Bulls logo, the NYCLU claims. Another was suspended for displaying an El Salvador flag on his Facebook page, and the NYCLU is aware of at least two students from the high school suspended on such grounds who were later detained by ICE, it said.

In February, the NYCLU filed a class action lawsuit that included claims on behalf of a Long Island teenager, originally from El Salvador and accused of being a gang member, who the organization said had been locked away for more than seven months. The suit said the Trump administration had stopped following laws directed at reunifying detained immigrant children with their families.