9 LI teens detained on gang activity suspicion released

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Nine Long Island teenagers accused of gang affiliations who were detained by the Office of Refugee Resettlement have been released after judges ruled there was not enough substantial evidence to support the allegations.

News 12 has reported that the ACLU filed a lawsuit in August, and a federal judge in California ruled last week that the detained teens must be given a hearing before an immigration judge within seven days. 

Thirteen of the 34 detained teens have been released after immigration judges found the government did not have enough evidence of gang membership to justify their continued detention.

One of those teens, identified only as "M.Z.," spoke with News 12 through a translator after returning to his Central Islip home. He had been detained as a suspected MS-13 gang member since June. 

"It was really hard because I wasn't with my mother and I wanted to be with her again," he said.

M.Z. says he came to Long Island from El Salvador in 2015 and has never belonged to MS-13. 

"I feel really bad because I've never belonged to a gang. I would never do that," M.Z. said through an interpreter. 

The teen's attorney says M.Z.'s case is representative of what has been happening in "Operation Matador" run by Homeland Security Investigations.

"There are so many undocumented children from Central America, at one point they were used as an excuse to say we're cracking down on gangs, and any allegation was fair game for immigration to pick them up," said attorney Martha Arce. "They did for a couple of months, but now they can no longer do that."

Last week, News 12 reporter Eileen Lehpamer spoke to a Brentwood High School student "F.E." who was also sent home to his family after he was detained since June in California for allegedly writing "503" – the area code of El Salvador – in his notebook.

Suffolk Police Commissioner and District Attorney-elect Tim Sini told News 12 last week that they plan to "continue the strategy that's been working for the last year and a half, and we're not going to make any apologies for that."

"We stand by every single detention that we collaborated with [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on," said Sini. "We targeted people based on factual allegations that they are active MS-13 members, and typically…it's not one indicator. It's a multitude of indicators."

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