There was a nervous tension among the teenagers as they each stood to give their graduation speech and anxiously surveyed the small gathering of parents and educators in the library of Santa Ana’s Valley High School.

Then Adrian stepped forward to share his story. He was apprehensive too, but when he launched into his speech there was a certainty in his posture and a conviction in his voice.

The journey to arrive at that spot on a crisp, winter morning last February had taken years and been filled with danger. He could have easily ended up another statistic: killed in a gang fight or locked up for life.

Instead, Adrian, an undocumented immigrant, was preparing to apply for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows immigrants who arrived as children to the United States and meet certain requirements to request a temporary two-year reprieve from deportation as well as the authorization to work.

(Since he is an undocumented immigrant, the Voice of OC is using the pseudonym of Adrian, for the young man, and Elisa for his mother to allow the family to publicly share their story without risk of being deported.)

He had high hopes for the future. But just as Adrian was ready to move on to the next stage in his life, his recent past would come to haunt him.

In the audience that day last February, Elisa sat beaming with tears sliding down her face as she listened to her son. She knew how close Adrian, who had recently turned 18, had come to veering off the path and straight into danger as a young man growing up in Santa Ana neighborhoods beset by poverty and violence.

Yet there he stood with a message of atonement 10 weeks after completing Joven Noble, a Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color rite of passage program that teaches at-risk youth responsibility, respect and decision-making skills.

“I was a troubled young man, hanging around with the wrong people, beating the streets, doing things I wasn’t supposed to even though I had a mother that helped me a lot,” Adrian confessed to the group.

He explained how he had misbehaved, yelling at his mom, disrespecting her, and doing “things a man doesn’t do to his mom.”

(Click here to read a detailed account of Adrian’s experience in the Joven Nobel program)

Then a childhood friend invited him to attend a Joven Noble meeting. And while at first Adrian felt out of place, he soon discovered that the process of opening up during group sessions strengthened him and helped him examine why his life had gone off course.

“I was living in cycles of violence my whole life. Till we talked about those cycles of love I started changing my mind, my way of thinking and I turned those cycles of violence into cycles of love,” Adrian told the group that day.

Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color Project Director Abraham Medina and Youth Engagement Coordinator Ignacio Rios Jr. praise Adrian’s progress during a Joven Nobel graduation ceremony.
Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color Project Director Abraham Medina and Youth Engagement Coordinator Ignacio Rios Jr. praise Adrian’s progress during a Joven Nobel graduation ceremony. Credit: Yvette Cabrera for Voice of OC

Joven Nobel is run by the group Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color, which is part of a larger statewide organization and launched locally in 2012 to keep youth in school, out of the juvenile justice system, and out of the hands of immigration authorities.

Adrian and Elisa credit the program with setting him on a path that led to his graduation from high school last June and his enrollment in Santa Ana College in the fall. But more than anything else, he wanted a job so he could help Elisa, who has had to support the family on her own since 2013 when Adrian’s father was convicted on an assault charge. He is now serving a seven-year sentence in state prison.

Getting a steady job, however, has always been impossible for Adrian, who like his older brother, crossed the border into the United States as a young boy with Elisa and without legal authorization. Hope came in 2012 when the Obama administration launched the DACA program, which is aimed at helping undocumented youth like Adrian, who came from Mexico at the age of 3.

The fate of this program, which doesn’t grant legal status, hangs in the balance alongside a similar program that President Obama created in November 2014 via executive action called the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) program, which grants a temporary reprieve from deportation for immigrant parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would consider a legal challenge filed by the state of Texas against DAPA and an expanded version of DACA, which Obama also introduced in the fall of 2014. One of the issues the court will examine is whether Obama exceeded his executive authority by creating programs that grant deferred action.

For many youth in Adrian’s shoes, DACA was a breakthrough, and it has helped to bring young students and adults on the path to college and beyond out of the shadows. But for Adrian, and others like him who have grown up in neighborhoods with gangs there was a catch.

When President Obama announced his plans to expand DACA and create DAPA he made one thing clear: Immigration authorities would continue to zero in on threats to the nation’s security.

In Obama’s words, his priorities were “Felons, not families. Criminals, not children. Gang members, not a mom who’s working hard to provide for her kids.”

Gang members have long been a priority for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but those who land in the crosshairs of federal authorities typically do so after being arrested or convicted of a crime.

Suddenly, however, youth who have never been convicted of a crime, but may have joined the gang and left, or associated with gang members in their neighborhood, are at risk of being deported because of their DACA application.

The DACA application form from United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) specifically asks each applicant whether he or she is “now” or “ever” has been a member of a gang.

What has not been clear to immigrant rights advocates and immigration attorneys working with youth applying for DACA is the criteria federal officials from USCIS use to determine who is a gang member.

“There’s no criteria in part because when it comes to DACA this is the first time that there’s ever been a specific question or criteria of gang association that is asked on an application,” said Caitlin W. Sanderson, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California in Orange County who specializes in police practices, gang injunctions and immigrants rights.

It’s a question tied to a growing concern among advocates and attorneys about the use of gang databases by local law enforcement agencies to track individuals known to be or suspected of being gang members, associates or affiliates, and which critics say lack transparency and accountability.

These databases are also used, according to immigration attorneys, by federal agencies such as ICE to deport alleged gang members, and they fear this information may also be used by the USCIS to turn down DACA applicants and refer them to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

It’s a concern that arose in the immigrant community as well, according to Abraham Medina, who leads Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color. Potential applicants either haven’t applied or fear applying because of school related incidents that were gang related and resulted in police contacts.

“It really does complicate the process for individuals who have had contact with police officers even if it’s something minor that’s school-related, and that’s unfortunate because we are communities that are at risk of being in contact with police,” said Medina.

An Important Choice

Last fall, as Adrian moved toward completing his DACA application, he sat down with Sean Garcia-Leys, a law student with the Immigrant Rights Clinic at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. The two discussed the risk of ICE making Adrian a deportation priority and placing him in removal proceedings if there was any record in any database of his gang involvement.

“My first recommendation is to not apply for DACA blindly. Whether or not you want to do it, you have to weigh the risks to your family,” explained Garcia-Leys, who has researched procedures for how individuals are placed on local, state and federal gang databases.

Sitting in the office of Boys and Men of Color, Adrian told Garcia-Leys that he had been stopped and questioned numerous times by police officers in his Santa Ana neighborhood, often as he walked down the street. Adrian’s fear was that somehow he had landed on a gang database via these stops.

“I’m going to have to think about it now,” Adrian told Garcia-Leys. “I have a little brother and sister and I don’t want to leave them alone…I’m like their second dad. It would be devastating to them.”

Adrian said he has never been arrested or convicted of any crime. But at the end of his sophomore year, when his father was jailed and it seemed like his world was falling apart, he joined a gang.

“My dad was everything to me. When I lost him I didn’t know what to do. I looked to my right and that gang was there,” said Adrian.

He said didn’t last long in the gang – slightly more than a year – and then realized he had made a mistake and was jumped out (physically beaten) by the gang and allowed to leave the gang.

There were many things that he did that he’s not proud of, he said. He would stay out late past midnight without heeding the consequences or the risks he was taking by being out on the streets.

“I had anger. I wouldn’t take pills or anything but I would clear it out with drugs and alcohol,” said Adrian.

It was his participation in Boys and Men of Color that not only inspired him to change course, but to share his story with younger students.

“I decided that it was a fresh beginning for me,” he said. “And weeks later [after joining Boys and Men of Color] I got out of gang.”

Would that involvement disqualify him from deferred action, or worse, result in his deportation? Those are the questions that weighed on Adrian as he debated whether to apply for DACA at all.

Last summer, the DACA program marked its third anniversary, but attorneys and advocates say they are still unclear as to what gang criteria would disqualify an individual applying for DACA.

Within the immigration court system and specifically deportation proceedings, the criteria used to label an individual a gang member is murky, said Sanderson of the ACLU.

“Just in the context of removal proceedings and the way in which ICE enforces immigration law, that label of gang member is really, really toxic, and there’s no criteria that I can see, that I know of, that they base their labeling on,” said Sanderson, who specialized in immigrant and refugee rights for seven years prior to working for the ACLU, including as program director for the Esperanza Immigrant Rights Project in Los Angeles.

So when the federal government asked DACA applicants to state whether they are “now” or have “ever been a member of a gang,” Sanderson warned her clients, who otherwise had strong applications, that the real risk was not that they would be denied DACA, but that they would be referred to ICE and then be deported.

This is an issue particularly for young men and women who grow up in neighborhoods with gang activity and who are stopped on a regular basis by police who suspect them of associating with a gang or by police attempting to gather as much information as possible, said Sanderson.

“Once that gets recorded somewhere, it’s unclear what happens to that information, and it’s been unclear if that’s sufficient for immigration [authorities] to find that somebody has had a history of gang association, which would make you ineligible for DACA…,” said Sanderson,

The ambiguity of the DACA application question left attorneys asking the federal government how gang membership is defined. Does it require a criminal conviction as a gang member, or a conviction involving increased sentences via gang enhancements, or self-admission of gang involvement?

The answer was not clear when DACA first launched in 2012 and numerous immigrant rights organizations asked then-USCIS director Alejandro Mayorkas what evidence would be used to verify gang membership. Sanderson said the organizations were not given clear guidance about what gang membership meant, and were told it was a “discretionary issue.”

In a written response to Voice of OC, USCIS stated that the factors making deferred action inappropriate would “include, but not be limited to, threats to public safety or national security” and indicators of such threats “include, but are not limited to, gang membership, participation in criminal activities, or participation in activities that threaten the United States.”

What Constitutes Gang Membership?

What Sanderson and other attorneys do know is how ICE uses police department data on alleged gang members in immigration cases involving removals and prosecutorial discretion, a tool that gives the government authority to decide to what degree to enforce the law against an individual.

“Within the context of a removal proceeding ICE will use the flimsiest of information from local police departments to label them [an individual] as a gang member,” said Sanderson, pointing out that there is no criteria in immigration law for what it means to be a gang member.

How individuals are classified as gang members has far reaching effects in both criminal and civil law, and as experts such as Sanderson have found, similar consequences in immigration cases.

The criteria for gang membership determines whether police can serve individuals with a legal notice for gang participation known as a STEP notice under the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act.

These notices along with field interview cards are used by district attorneys as evidence of gang participation in criminal cases. They are also used in civil hearings to prove gang membership for a gang injunction, a civil restraining order that restricts illegal and otherwise legal, everyday activities of a gang’s members in what prosecutors describe as a “safety zone,” for example, associating with gang members in public spaces within that safety zone.

In California, the information in the statewide gang database, known as CALGANG, is used by police as a source and investigatory tool to track youth and adults alleged to be gang members.

The state requires that in order for a law enforcement officer to enter an individual into the database, at least two of 10 criteria must be met. Those include a gang membership admission or if an individual is arrested with known gang members for offenses that are “consistent with gang activity.”

Other criteria include wearing “gang dress” or having gang tattoos, as well as frequenting gang areas, which has raised red flags among civil rights and defense attorneys who say this criteria is subjective and can lead to misclassification and racial profiling of youth of color based on how they look and where they live.

The number of individuals on CALGANG has dropped in recent years. In 2012 there were slightly more than 200,000 people statewide, according to the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles, which published a 2012 report “Tracked and Trapped,” analyzing the demographics of the database.

Today there are 140,000 individuals on CALGANG, but what has remained constant is the disproportionate number of people of color on the database, particularly Latinos who represent 65 percent, and African Americans who represent 20.7 percent of those on the list, according to CALGANG data provided to the Voice of OC by CALGANG via a public records request.

Santa Ana Police Department Commander Eric Paulson describes CALGANG as a tool that directs officers towards documented sources that police must then analyze and determine whether there is enough evidence to confirm whether someone is an active gang member.

“We cannot and do not rely on CALGANG to say [you belong] to ABC gang. What it does is it sends us to the documentation,” said Paulson, who manages the Crimes Against Persons Division, which includes the department’s gang unit.

In order to place an individual on CALGANG, the department examines field interview cards, which are generated during routine stops by officers in the field who come in contact with an alleged gang member and document criteria that fits the state guidelines for CALGANG. A department administrator then evaluates that information to make sure there is probable cause and sufficient criteria to place the individual on the database, said Paulson.

“There are several layers of scrutiny that go on in the process because we want to get it right; we do. And sometimes we fail. We’re human, but there are several layers of protection to protect the rights of everybody,” said Paulson.

But Josh Green, a staff attorney and legal coordinator with the Urban Peace Institute in Los Angeles, said not only is the criteria for gang behavior and membership overly broad, the criteria is often indistinguishable from the markers of neighborhoods and communities impacted by gang activity.

“When the standards are so incredibly low and they map on pretty closely to what it is just to be a person who grows up in a low-income, violence-impacted neighborhood, then we begin to have some challenges because we start to lump people into these categories,” said Green, whose organization works to reduce and prevent community violence.

In one case, Green’s client was added to the database after being detained for being out past curfew as his friends walked him to the bus station on his way home. Police found no weapons, no drugs, no gang tattoos and made no arrests, Green said.

After researching CALGANG, Garcia-Leys from the UC Irvine School of Law was likewise critical of the criteria, as well as the fact that officers must use their own judgment to determine if the criteria fits.

“It’s the idea that having really vague criteria with an extremely low threshold is not doing the job of ensuring that there’s any sort of equity or accuracy in the way that this is reported from department to department and officer to officer,” said Garcia-Leys.

Green said law enforcement has long contended that there are no consequences to being placed on the database because it’s an investigative tool and it’s confidential to law enforcement agencies. But he points out that the database has severe consequences for undocumented immigrant youth in removal proceedings when the government claims the individual is an active gang member based on information from the database.

“ICE doesn’t have field interview cards on this individual, so where that information comes from and what it’s based on, that is potentially problematic,” said Green.

Individuals in deportation proceedings whom Garcia-Leys has helped in immigration court bond hearings have dealt with precisely that issue when faced with a Department of Homeland Security attorney who has a criminal history file that states the individual is a gang member.

“There’s no information on where they found that out, why they believe that, when they considered them to be a gang member. It just says they are a gang member,” Garcia-Leys said.

And once an individual is labeled a gang member or associate, it’s not only difficult to shed the marker, the person is more likely to be criminalized and marginalized rather than receive support services, Green said.

“When that happens my concern is that is a huge obstacle to actually building healthy community and police relationships, and that’s a consequence to providing law enforcement with the kind of tool that encourages suppression,” Green said.

The database is just one tool in an arsenal that has grown exponentially in the last three decades to allow police and prosecutors to scrutinize gang members more closely and prosecute them with harsher sentences, even for low-level crimes, Green said.

The challenge for youth applying for DACA is that an individual can land on the CALGANG database even though they they’ve never been arrested, Green said. That is the case with one of his clients, a 15-year-old who received a legal notice last year that he had been added to the database.

If a minor like his client wanted to apply for deferred action, Green’s concern is that an ICE search of CALGANG would show evidence of field interview cards and then allow federal immigration authorities to make a determination that his client is a gang member based on subjective criteria provided by police officers, not evidence that has been tested in court.

“This is the kind of thing that not only could get your DACA denied, but could get you flagged for high priority deportation,” said Green.

Part of the challenge is the lack of transparency with the database for those outside of law enforcement. Attorneys and advocates report that some of their clients didn’t know they were on the database and don’t know how to challenge the evidence so that they can be removed.

Because of this, advocates across the state have pushed to create legislation to change the CALGANG notification rules, and since 2014 all California minors and their parents must be notified when a law enforcement agency places the minor on the gang database. Adults, however, are not notified, something which the advocates are hoping to change.

Questions of Due Process

The implications of being on the database can extend beyond the streets and into the courts. The Youth Justice Coalition, in its 2012 assessment of the database, concluded that CALGANG affects prosecutions and sentencing as well.

“The database is routinely used to determine who is prosecuted in court for “gang related activity” and consequently, given a gang enhancement (additional time at sentencing),” wrote sociologist Ana Muñiz in a 2013 essay titled “What’s Wrong with California’s Gang Databases and Gang Injunctions,” as part of the coalition’s database project.

In her writings, Muñiz describes law enforcement’s process for determining gang membership as a “heavily flawed, racist, and assumption-packed process,” as well as “lacking in rigor” “vague and inconsistent, at best.”

This issue came to the fore in the city of Orange, where District Attorney Tony Rackauckas sought a gang injunction against the Orange Varrio Cypress gang and was subsequently sued by the ACLU of Southern California for failing to provide adequate due process to some of the individuals named in the injunction.

The Vasquez v. Rackauckas case illustrates what civil rights attorneys have described as the “unfettered discretion” that police officers are given in identifying gangs as well as active gang members.

At the state trial, attorneys for the ACLU discovered that in hundreds of declarations by Orange police officers, many officers based their conclusions of gang affiliation on weak evidence.

Even self-admission, one of the most objective forms of proving gang affiliation, was shown to be tenuous when the ACLU attorneys discovered that youth would tell officers they were from Orange Varrio Cypress, the neighborhood, but police would document the statement as an admission of gang affiliation because the gang name is identical to the name of the neighborhood.

Ultimately, what results from the use of tools such as gang databases and gang injunctions is that law enforcement agencies target groups and people instead of criminal acts, and before a criminal act occurs, Muñiz said during a Loyola Law School symposium last spring.

“Of course the people under this framework that are targeted are overwhelmingly black and Latino and poor,” said Muñiz.

These polices, in turn, increase the likelihood that undocumented youth in neighborhoods with gang injunctions or where police use gang databases or suppressive tactics will come into contact with law enforcement, said Medina of Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color.

“Undocumented youth are not only at a higher risk of coming into contact with police but also at higher risk of being over-criminalized, which makes them a higher risk of being in the CALGANG database,” Medina said.

One example he pointed out is students who get in a physical fight with fellow students, and then school authorities or campus police mislabel the incident as a gang fight. Some students have told Medina they were in a verbal argument with another student and were labeled as gang members even though neither student was part of a gang.

“We are seeing these incidents happen not only due to school police but city police,” said Medina.

Santa Ana Unified School District Chief of Police Hector Rodriguez said the district does not maintain a gang database nor gang files on students, but his officers do track gang related activity reports on campuses so that the district is aware of any gang dynamics or potential for violence.

“That’s something that I want the officers to know – what the dynamics are at the different schools for the protection of the kids,” said Rodriguez. “…We’re aware of it for situational awareness, but if you’re talking about official records that will be passed along to somebody else we don’t do that.”

Medina has discussed the issue with Rodriguez, who explained that the district doesn’t share student information with CALGANG. But it’s still unclear what criteria the school district uses to determine whether a student is a gang member, Medina said.

Those questions led his organization to conclude that it needed to campaign so that CALGANG includes clearer criteria of how a gang member is defined, said Medina, whose organization is part of a statewide coalition that pushed for a state audit of the database that’s currently underway.

Medina’s hope is that the audit of the database by the state auditor can shed light on these issues. Ultimately Medina believes that a more transparent process will shatter what he describes as the “myth” that the database contains only hardcore gang members as well as law enforcement’s assertion that inclusion on the database doesn’t harm individuals because the information is confidential.

“We continue to do this work, but it’s unfortunate that as we advocate real students like [Adrian] are forgoing opportunities that can change their lives,” said Medina.

Problems Start in Middle School

The first time Adrian was labeled as a gang member he was in 6th grade and attending a Santa Ana Unified School District middle school, where his older brother, Chris (not his real name), was a student as well.

Throughout his early childhood, Adrian had been well-behaved, calm, and obedient, Elisa said. His grades were average, he played soccer, and didn’t get into trouble.

But in middle school, school records provided by Elisa show that his brother Chris began to act out and was written up for excessive tardiness, disorderly conduct, insubordination, and disrupting school activities throughout the fall of 2008.

The breaking point for the school came in November of that year when Chris was written up for gang-related activity. School records show that during that month other students reported to school authorities that Chris was “bullying, throwing gang signs” and possibly involved in tagging a restroom wall with gang graffiti.

The school’s investigation concluded that is was Adrian and a friend who tagged the wall and administrators secured a voluntary student statement from Adrian where he admitted to tagging.

Ultimately, after a district pupil placement committee meeting to discuss the matter, the district expelled the brothers from the school and transferred the pair to another school within the district. It’s a decision that Elisa said only led to more trouble for Chris.

“Instead of wanting to support our youth, the only solution they came up with was to expel them from school,” said Elisa.

Santa Ana Unified School District Director of School Climate Sonia Llamas could not comment specifically on how Adrian’s conduct was handled by the district because of confidentiality laws regulating school records.

But Llamas outlined how a district-wide shift in school discipline policies over the last five years has altered how student conduct issues are handled. A few examples she cited are the use of alternatives to suspension and expulsion as a means to correct behavior, such as positive behavior interventions and support to change how personnel respond to a student’s behavior.

“Specifically for student discipline it is about trying to find out what the underlying reason is to the student’s behavior,” said Llamas.

District wide, expulsions dropped 81 percent over a six-year period (from 179 in the 2009-10 school year to 34 in 2014-15), while suspensions fell 64 percent over the last four years (from 7,606 in the 2011-2012 school year to 2,736 in 2014-15).

“It’s really a mind set shift that’s occurred across our district,” said Llamas. “We still have a lot of work to do but it’s good work and it’s work to support our students and really get them back on track.”

But in 2008, Santa Ana Unified was still operating under the old paradigm. And Adrian experienced the consequences of policies that had little tolerance for students who got in fights, didn’t show up for class, and racked up a record of bad behavior.

By the end of Adrian’s sophomore year, both he and Chris were expelled from their high school, and their principal explained to Elisa that the school had given them opportunities, but they were headed down the wrong road. Adrian, in particular, was at a crossroads.

“She said she had already given them a lot of chances and they weren’t taking advantage of them, and that the school was going to give those opportunities to other students who truly wanted to go to school,” recalled Elisa.

Chris, who was already 18, dropped out of high school. Without his brother to watch his back, Adrian, then a 10th grader, said he had learned to protect himself, whether someone pulled a knife on him or threw a punch.

This is also when he said he decided to join a gang.

“At the end I started protecting myself and I didn’t need my brother no more. I just found a different family,” said Adrian.

Elisa said that at the time she did not know that Adrian had joined the gang, but at home he was disrespecting her and acting out. He was so far behind with his school credits that the district transferred him to the Lorin Griset Academy, a continuation high school in Santa Ana’s Townsend Street neighborhood.

Elisa was hesitant to send him to Loren Griset because the school is in the middle of several gang territories, and she worried that Adrian would be exposed as he walked home from school everyday.

But then she noticed that Adrian’s grades improved and his behavior changed as well. At Lorin Griset, in late 2014 he joined Santa Ana Boys and Men of Color and began participating in the organization’s 10-week Joven Noble program. He told Elisa that it was a safe space where he could speak openly about his problems, including why he joined the gang.

Not only did Adrian leave the gang, but his attitude at home changed too. He became more affectionate with Elisa, hugging her and telling her that he loved her. Elisa said she came to appreciate how much of a difference both the program and Lorin Griset made in her son’s life.

Adrian’s trajectory is typical among youth who join gangs during their teenage years, but within a few years outgrow the gang and leave, according to gang experts.

Today, he’s 19 and looks back at that period through the lens of a young man who has learned some hard lessons.

“The whole progression of being a gang member, inside of me I was like: That’s cool, that’s what I want to be. But in reality I didn’t see what troubles it had,” said Adrian.

More Questions Than Answers

For most high school graduates, the next step after graduation is often college or work. For Adrian, both would be challenging given his undocumented status. Which is why he had worked throughout the spring last year to get his DACA application together, including his passport and an identification card from the Mexican consulate in Santa Ana.

Yet even as he prepared the application, Adrian moved forward cautiously. He was uncertain that he would submit his paperwork given his gang history. It’s a dilemma faced by other undocumented youth that Medina and Boys and Men of Color are helping.

Since DACA went into effect in 2012, the issue of how gang databases can impact DACA-applying youth has been addressed in community forums and conversations, said Medina.

“When we started to help youth through the process we realized there were dead ends, no answers and more questions being raised as to whether or not it would be safe for a student to apply or not,” said Medina.

His organization has been helping youth apply for DACA since early 2015 and offers scholarships to pay the application fees, in addition to being part of the coalition that sought the state audit of CALGANG.

What remains is the larger question of how the system can keep young people from taking the detour Adrian made while still combatting gang violence.

Green, with the Urban Peace Institute, has seen a greater pushback to CALGANG from the community in recent years, in part, he believes because of the larger discussion that is taking place around police-community relations as well as the school to prison pipeline.

That conversation has led communities to examine zero tolerance discipline policies in schools as well as the police crackdowns on minors for status offenses such as curfew violations, which in turn has led to a dialogue on the tools used by law enforcement such as gang databases and gang injunctions, he said.

“It’s a recognition…that those things were actually having a pretty specific and broad-reaching negative consequences for the individuals but also more globally within the school system and youth system,” Green said.

At the heart of the debate over the use of gang injunctions and databases is how the law defines a gang member, and Green points out that the Vasquez v. Rackauckas decision made it clear that there is a high risk of error when law enforcement tries to determine something as fluid as gang membership without input from the individual.

The court concluded that these individuals have the right to due process to challenge gang membership, said Green.

“That [decision] indicates a hopefulness for those of who believe that there is not adequate due process because it suggests that in a system where there are serious rights restricted, there is a high probability of error … and there needs to be an opportunity for that individual – before their rights are restricted – to correct that error,” said Green.

“I feel the same way about the database,” Green said. “That to me is the crux of the issue. We’re never going to stop law enforcement from investigating things, but the protection needs to be there.”

While Green’s hope is that the state audit of the database will reveal more clearly how CALGANG operates, the coalition is moving forward on other fronts to ensure that those added to the database have protections in place.

The coalition, including the Urban Peace Institute, the Youth Justice Coalition and others, has sponsored a legislative assembly bill that seeks to expand 2013 senate bill 458, a law that requires that law enforcement notify minors and their parents when a minor is placed on CALGANG. The goal, said Green is to expand that right to adults as well as provide those adults with the right to respond and request to be removed.

“This law would expand SB 458 and hopefully build a level of transparency and accountability,” said Green.

In the last year, Adrian said he learned that there were many people willing to step up and give him a second chance, but with every step he took he realized how much he had to lose if he applied to DACA and the federal government deemed him deportable because of his former gang status.

But ultimately, he felt it was a sacrifice worth making. He wanted to come out of the shadows, to work legitimately and one day graduate from college.

Last month he decided he would turn in his DACA application and hope for the best. The likelihood that he was on the database was small, and came with a risk, but the reward would be great in his eyes.

“I know I’m going to get something positive out of it,” said Adrian.

This project was made possible through a fellowship on immigrant families from the Institute for Justice and Journalism, which is dedicated to strengthening journalism about social and economic justice issues.

Yvette Cabrera is a long-time Orange County journalist and Voice of OC contributing writer. She can be reached at

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