American border officials cannot refuse to let in gang members who either sneak in or show up at ports of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border, government officials said Tuesday as they pleaded for congressional action to close loopholes gang members are exploiting.
“When they come to our border I have to let them in,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said at a White House roundtable.
“This is unique to our country, and it’s got to change,” President Trump chimed in.
Mr. Trump has made highlighting and combating MS-13 a major tenet of his immigration policy, and his aides bolstered his case with graphic stories and photos of victims of MS-13 violence.
Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan called the gang “savages.”
“The reason MS-13 is so massive in our country, the reason why they have 10,000 members in 40 states and the District of Columbia, is because many of those gang members have illegally entered our country,” Mr. Cronan said. “MS-13 can simply replenish its jail population by sending more and more members across our borders.”
Government officials say many illegal immigrants — particularly children — arriving from Central America cannot be quickly deported, but must instead be released into the U.S. where the disappear into the shadows. The officials blamed laws and court settlements that have created loopholes illegal immigrants, and the smugglers who entice them to make the journey, have learned to exploit.
Many are coached to use “magic words” asserting fear of abuse or violence back home to lodge asylum claims, which guarantee them at least an immediate entry into the U.S.
Immigrant-rights advocates don’t defend the gangs, but say Mr. Trump is giving immigrants an unfair rap by pointing to MS-13 as part of the immigration debate.
The Democratic National Committee called Mr. Trump’s claims an attempt to “fearmonger,” saying he was “falsely [conflating] MS-13 gang members with undocumented immigrants.”
Data from a major anti-gang operation last year, though, suggested there is a link.
Angel Melendez, special agent in charge in Homeland Security Investigations’ New York office, said a stunning 30 percent of MS-13 members arrested in recent anti-gang operations came to the U.S. as part of the surge of Unaccompanied Alien Children (UAC) that overwhelmed the Obama administration in its final years in office.
Agent Melendez said of 40,810 UAC who arrived in the U.S. and were granted initial entry in 2017, more than half of them are males ages 13 to 17 from the Central American countries that serve as the source for MS-13.
He said not all of those UAC are gang members, but MS-13 is “looking at these 20K [UAC] that came into the United States as potential recruits to refill their ranks.”
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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