It's time to stop scapegoating immigrant youth
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On Jan. 30, President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump: I hope voters pay attention to Dem tactics amid Kavanaugh fight South Korea leader: North Korea agrees to take steps toward denuclearization Graham calls handling of Kavanaugh allegations 'a drive-by shooting' MORE delivered his first State of the Union address. Throughout his first year in office, we saw an increase in anti-immigrant rhetoric and enforcement, particularly with a renewed interest in targeting suspected gang members. This theme was continued during his State of the Union Address, when Trump blamed recent incidents of gang violence on the surge of unaccompanied immigrant youth crossing the border thanks to “glaring loopholes in our law.” During his speech, the president called on Congress to “finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed” gang members into the country.

While Trump called on Congress to act, his administration has already been targeting youth of color in an attempt to address gang violence. On Feb. 9, 2017, less than a month into the first year of his presidency, the president issued an Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking, calling on federal law enforcement agencies to prioritize and dedicate resources to “identify, interdict, disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and subsidiary organizations…[.]”  In August of 2017 it was revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began targeting teenagers whom they suspected were affiliated gangs, even if they had little evidence. Per U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy, “a person can be identified as a gang member if they meet two or more criteria, including . . . frequenting an area notorious for gangs and wearing gang apparel.”  As a result, children are now being targeted by law enforcement for simply wearing a particular soccer jersey or doodling the area code of their home country. According to a class action lawsuit filed by the ACLU, children suspected of being affiliated with a gang are “arrested, denied access to family and legal counsel . . . and held in jail-like conditions.”  When police don’t have enough evidence to charge minors with a crime, they are reporting them to ICE who takes custody of the unaccompanied minor and sends them to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). ORR is not required to notify parents or offer any meaningful review of ICE’s reason to detain, and they have the ability to send the children across the country into contracted secure detention facilities. 

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In addition to targeting youth of color, ICE adopted a “surge initiative,” which uses immigrant youth to target undocumented parents and guardians who allegedly paid smugglers to have their children brought to the U.S. While this new initiative was framed as a way to disrupt human smuggling networks, the tactics are alarming and very well could lead to the opposite effect. Children fleeing their home country to come to the U.S. often do so because the security and law enforcement systems in their country have failed to protect them from harm.

Further, these enforcement tactics may embolden criminal actors who may subject children to even more costly, dangerous, and hidden routes. What is more, according to news reports, only a handful of people had been charged with federal smuggling crimes a month into the initiative. Not only has the initiative proved ineffective, it has also undermines the stability and safety of our communities. Fear of immigration enforcement has already reduced engagement with local police and the reporting of crimes, including domestic violence and sexual assault. Such policies can also tear apart families, leaving traumatized children, including children who are U.S. citizens, dependent on child welfare or other social service agencies and without their family for support. This enforcement initiative is an inappropriate use of programs and services intended to protect children, and it threatens the very integrity of our child protection principles and system.

Congress has also already had its eye on targeting suspected gang members. In September, the House passed H.R. 3697, the Criminal Alien Gang Removal Act. Introduced by Rep. Barbara ComstockBarbara Jean ComstockVirginia reps urge Trump to declare federal emergency ahead of Hurricane Florence The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — 2020 hopefuls lead the charge against Kavanaugh Trump retweets GOP Senate candidate upset by federal pay freeze MORE (R-Va.), the bill creates a new sweeping definition of “criminal gang,” and targets those who never committed a single criminal act, unlike current law, which requires non-citizens be convicted of a crime to be eligible for deportation. H.R. 3697 also grants the secretary of Homeland Security broad authority to designate small groups of people as a “criminal gang” and requires mandatory detention and deportation for any current or former member of such designated groups.  It should also be noted, that once identified as a "criminal gang" there is little to no recourse for an individual to challenge that label and be removed from the national gang database.

Innocent youth of color should never be targeted, but it is especially troubling that Congress and the administration have focused on implementing such draconian and cruel measures rather than taking steps to protect those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program (which expires on March 5 of this year), and steps that would more broadly protect vulnerable youth in our communities. While the president committed to providing a pathway to citizenship for youth in the DACA program during his State of the Union address, just a few weeks prior to the address he spurned a bipartisan package from six senators that would have provided protection for Dreamers and increased spending for border security.

Rather than scapegoating immigrant youth and youth of color, our government should be investing in these young people by adopting laws and policies that provide the tools and services young people need to become successful, contributing adults. By taking steps like protecting DACA recipients, Congress and the administration could increase the strength of our union, “building,” as the president touted, “a safe, strong, and proud America.” 

Rachel Marshall is Federal Policy Counsel for the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system.