- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 15, 2004

The Senate Judiciary Committee stalled last week on a bipartisan bill that would make it a federal crime to participate in street-gang violence after Democrats — joined by one Republican — removed a provision requiring the deportation of convicted aliens.

Without the removed section, aliens convicted of violent gang crimes can avoid deportation, according to Republicans who attempted to keep the provision in the bill.

“I am concerned that the provision was removed from a bill that is aimed at providing law-enforcement officials with some very strong and much-needed tools,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and member of the Judiciary Committee. “As a co-sponsor of the legislation, it was my intent that the provision be in the bill.”

Sen. Russell D. Feingold, Wisconsin Democrat, and others said they opposed the deportation-related measure because it would expand the definition of “violent federal crimes” and could lead to the deportation of aliens convicted of minor charges.

The committee plans to resume negotiations this week on the bill, which was jointly drafted by Judiciary Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat.

Though she had earlier said she would not do so, Mrs. Feinstein joined the eight other Democrats on the committee in voting to take out the provision relating to deportation. Sen. Mike DeWine, Ohio Republican, joined with Democrats to remove the provision on a 10-9 vote in committee.

In addition to increasing penalties for the most serious gang-related crimes — including the death penalty — the bill also would make it a federal crime to recruit minors into criminal street gangs. Also, the bill would authorize more than $500 million in new spending over five years to fight gang violence.

“The goal of this bill is simple: to stem the growing tide of gang violence across the country,” Mrs. Feinstein said.

“It used to be that gangs were local problems, demanding local law-enforcement-based solutions. But over the last 12 years, I have seen the problem go from small to large and from neighborhood-based to national in scope,” she said. “Today, gangs have become far more violent, far more numerous, and far more broad in scope. This is why we need a strong federal response.”

Mr. Hatch said, “The problem of gang violence in America is not a new one, nor is it a problem that is limited to major urban areas.” There are at least 250 identified gangs in the area around Salt Lake City, he said, with more than 3,500 members.

“What is perhaps most troubling,” Mr. Hatch added, “the juvenile gang members in Utah account for over one-third of the total gang membership.” Though the overall bill has support from both sides of the aisle, some conservatives say it’s too weak, and some liberals say it’s too harsh.

As the committee meeting got under way last week, it became apparent that Democrats were hesitant to move forward and introduced 25 amendments to be debated and voted on, sending a clear signal they want to stall the bill.

Committee members were able to finish only the first amendment in their meeting, which dealt with the issue of deporting aliens arrested for gang violence.

Though it’s a major setback for some Republicans on the committee, Mr. Hatch plans to return to the bill this week and hopes to send it to the Senate floor.

“Obviously, it was an important provision, and it’s disappointing that it was taken out,” said Judiciary spokeswoman Margarita Tapia of the deleted provision. “But we will continue to work on the bill.”

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