The violent MS-13 gang, which was nearly eradicated by the Bush administration, has been able to rebuild its ranks on the backs of illegal immigrant recruits, according to a new think tank report Wednesday.
Nearly a quarter of MS-13 gang members arrested or charged with crimes since 2012 came to the U.S. as part of the Obama-era surge of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC), including a staggering number who have faced murder charges, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, which looked at 506 cases.
Jessica Vaughan, the report’s author, said the Bush administration used immigration laws to go after even low-level MS-13 affiliates, and worked closely with local police — even in sanctuary cities — to try to target gang members.
The Obama administration changed the focus away from rank-and-file illegal immigrants and toward trying to make big cases, hoping to make major conspiracy cases instead.
The result was a collapse in enforcement.
“ICE officers were no longer permitted to arrest and remove foreign gang members until they had been convicted of major crimes. Gang arrests by ICE plummeted from about 4,600 in 2012 to about 1,580 in 2014,” Ms. Vaughan wrote.
She said those changes came just as the gangs were getting an influx of new members thanks to the surge of UAC that began in 2012 and was in full bloom by 2014, drawing tens of thousands of young males from Central America into the U.S. That’s the key recruiting pool for MS-13.
“According to local gang investigators, these gangs have been aggressively recruiting recently arrived Central American children as young as 10 years old,” she wrote.
Ms. Vaughan said sanctuary cities are feeding the problem by creating a no-questions-asked environment, of which the gangs are aware.
President Trump has elevated the issue of MS-13 this year, including inviting to the State of the Union address a top-level Homeland Security investigator and the parents of two teenage girls who were victims of a gang attack.
And at a roundtable discussion at the White House earlier this month Homeland Security officials said merely being in a gang isn’t designated as a reason to immediately deport or exclude someone from entering the U.S.
“When they come to our border, I have to let them in,” said Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. “I cannot keep them out by virtue of them being in a gang. Once we catch them and detain them, I cannot remove them by virtue of them being in a gang.”
Yet cracking down on MS-13 was mostly absent from the recent Senate debate on immigration, where the focus was on legalizing illegal immigrant Dreamers — some of whom came as part of the same UAC surge that has also fueled MS-13.
Among Republicans, there’s a consensus that combating MS-13 is worthy.
GOP lawmakers from Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada to Rep. Lee Zeldin of New York have proposed giving the federal government more tools.
Mr. Heller introduced an amendment during last week’s Senate debate to allow for fast deportation of gang members. The proposal never received a vote.
Mr. Zeldin’s plan would allow the government to revoke citizenship of anyone found to be involved with gangs either before or within 10 years after becoming a citizen.
Immigrant-rights groups blasted Mr. Zeldin for the proposal Tuesday.
“This bill is shameless political posturing,” said Steven Choi, executive director of the New York Immigration Coalition. “It will actually cripple public safety, while demonizing Long Island’s thousands of hard-working immigrants.”
He said Homeland Security uses “arbitrary criteria” to calculate gang affiliation, opening the door to deportations without firm public safety reasons.
Immigrant-rights groups are fighting a case in Washington state where U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested and tried to deport a young man here under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals deportation amnesty. ICE said the man had a gang tattoo and gave indications of past gang activity.
The man says the tattoo has no gang significance and he did not affiliate with the gang authorities charged.