SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - The federal government can't ship immigrant minors suspected of gang involvement to far-off detention centers without giving them due process hearings first, a federal judge ruled this week.
Three immigrant teenagers challenged their detention in the Northern District of California federal court, seeking to represent a class of all noncitizen minors arrested on suspicion of "gang affiliation." The young, undocumented immigrants were sent to one of the nation's two high-security detention centers for noncitizen minors in Virginia and California.
In a Nov. 20 ruling, U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria found the federal government violated the minors' due process rights by indefinitely detaining them without a court hearing.
The judge ruled the minors must receive a hearing before an immigration judge within seven days of being arrested and before they could be sent to far-off detention centers.
"By shipping the minors across the country for indefinite detention in a high-security facility before providing that hearing, the government has violated their due process rights," Chhabria wrote in his 44-page ruling.
"It's the right decision and one that should provide some comfort to kids now out of federal custody that if they are going to be re-arrested, there must be some probable cause before they can be re-arrested," Holly Cooper, co-director of the Immigration Law Clinic at the University of California Davis, said in a phone interview.
She added that the fact that young noncitizens could be re-arrested without probable cause was a source of great fear in the immigrant community.
The ruling applies to all noncitizen minors that were released from federal custody and placed with a sponsor before being re-arrested on suspicion of gang activity. All currently detained minors in that situation must receive a hearing by Nov. 29, Judge Chhabria said.
"These boys were torn from their families," said Julia Harumi Mass of the ACLU of Northern California, which represented the plaintiffs, in a statement. "The Trump administration wrongfully denied them any opportunity to respond to the charges against them, and the court’s order recognizes their rights to a fair and impartial hearing when they are threatened with deprivation of their liberty."
Mass said the federal government should not be allowed to arrest any person, "let alone a child," just because they were seen wearing a certain color shirt or visiting a pizza parlor that happens to be frequented by a known gang member.
The lead plaintiff, named in the complaint as A.H., was living with his mother in Long Island before he was arrested on suspicion of gang involvement by two plainclothes ICE officers on June 12. A.H. was put on a flight to California and taken to the Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility near Sacramento. A.H. says he fled his home country of Honduras in 2015 to escape an abusive father.
A.H. had been charged with menacing and possession of a weapon after an "incident" with a fellow student at school, but those charges were to be dismissed upon the completion of community service. A.H. was also charged with marijuana possession, which he also expected to be dismissed before he was arrested in June.
Unaccompanied minors like A.H. are placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Those minors can be placed in one of three different types of facilities: minimum-security shelters, medium-security facilities, and secure detention centers, which are akin to juvenile halls. The minors can be released to a parent or sponsor if it is determined they do not pose a danger to the community.
Immigrant minors that the federal government deems dangerous are sent to one of only two high-security detention centers in the U.S. Those detention centers are the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Virginia and Yolo County Juvenile Detention Facility in California.
"These detention centers are often thousands of miles away from their parents and families," Cooper said.
Chhabria noted in his ruling that the government can take immigrant minors back into custody, but it must show that changed circumstances justify re-arresting them.
"This is not to say that DHS may never rearrest, using a removability warrant, a minor previously released by ORR to a sponsor. But to be lawful, the arrest must be based on evidence that the circumstances relevant to that original release decision have changed. In other words, DHS must have probable cause to believe that, notwithstanding ORR's prior determination, the minor is now a danger to himself or the community, or a flight risk," Chhabria wrote.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday morning.
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