ICE Gang Removals Decline in FY 2020, but Agency's Efforts Still Pretty Impressive

Once the pandemic passes, what will the Biden administration, sanctuary jurisdictions, and the media do?

By Andrew R. Arthur on December 31, 2020

In my last two posts, I analyzed portions of the ICE Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) FY 2020 statistical report: total arrests, detentions, and removals by ICE; and the agency's removals of known or suspected terrorists last fiscal year, respectively. Also included in the ICE report are the number of known or suspected gang members whom the agency removed. Gang removals were down, but the agency's anti-gang efforts overall were still impressive. The question is, how will a Biden administration, sanctuary jurisdictions, and the media treat the alien gang problem going forward?

In FY 2020, ICE removed 4,276 known or suspected gang members, down from 5,497 in FY 2019 and 5,872 in FY 2018. The 23 percent year-to-year decline is mildly concerning, given the emphasis that the White House has placed on gangs, and in particular Mara Salvatrucha, better known as "MS-13".

Despite the decline in removals, though, I do not want to sell ICE's anti-gang endeavors short, as the agency – faced some significant pandemic-related hurdles – was nonetheless plenty busy when it came to dealing with gang members in FY 2020.

In September, for example, ICE lodged detainers against three of the five suspects in a case about which I have written extensively, the rural Baltimore County, Md. killing of 16-year-old Gabriela Alejandra Gonzalez Ardon. Those three, described as "MS-13 affiliates", are also suspects in the attempted murder of a 17-year-old they were attempting to recruit into the gang.

A month before, ICE lodged detainers against 10 individuals arrested by the FBI for sex trafficking or physical assault of a minor (a 13-year-old girl) in a case about which I wrote in August. The 10 are identified as "known members or close associates of MS-13". Those sickening crimes occurred in Washington, D.C.'s Maryland and Virginia suburbs.

In July, ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) announced that one of its investigations in Las Vegas had led to the criminal and administrative arrests of 17 MS-13 members and associates (as well as the seizure of five pounds of methamphetamine, $28,000 in cash, nine long arms, five handguns, and six suppressors). Thirteen of the leaders, members, and associates arrested were charged under the federal "Kingpin" statute, as well as with other crimes.

Earlier that month, HSI announced that as a result of another its arrests, two MS-13 members received 27- and 30-year sentences, respectively, on racketeering charges and other murder-related offenses in California. Eight others had already pled guilty in connection with that particular enterprise.

In June, an HSI investigation led to New York state charges against 26 alleged Trinitario gang members in the Bronx. ICE reported that 14 violent acts were carried out by former Rikers Island inmates in the jail during a period between September 2015 and July 2019. In those incidents, half of the targets were rival gang members, while the other half were Trinitarios who broke gang rules or otherwise "were not in good standing". Twelve of the 14 incidents were slashings and stabbings.

After an HSI investigation, 10 MS-13 members and associates were charged with murder in-aid-of racketeering, attempted murder, murder conspiracy, related firearms offenses, and marijuana distribution conspiracy in federal court in New York in May. That investigation was prompted by three murders, one in the street, one in a park, and a third that began with an assault in a subway car and ended in a killing on a subway platform, all in Queens.

I could go on, but you get the point. You can check out all of ICE's recent anti-gang efforts on its yet-to-be updated "Combating Gangs" webpage.

The decrease in ERO's gang removals must also be considered in the context of the pandemic. ICE briefly scaled back its enforcement efforts shortly after the emergency was declared in late March (as I mentioned on Wednesday), and has had to limit its detention space to comply with CDC standards.

Other law-enforcement agencies have been operating similar restrictions as well, meaning that there were fewer criminals arrested and detained at the state and local levels. This, in turn, has likely provided the agency with fewer criminals – and criminal gang members – to remove.

Biden has not mentioned curtailing ICE's gang efforts. He has vowed to limit deportations to aliens who have committed felonies in the United States (and to fire any ICE agents who fail to follow these restrictions), but as the foregoing shows, gang members are committing more than their fair share of felonies here.

I note that the former vice president has also promised a 100-day moratorium on all removals from the United States, but I wonder how much – and to what degree – he means it. Does anyone want a gang member who has sex-trafficked a really young teenager sticking around in the country for more than three months? Time will tell, but that would likely provoke a backlash, even among his supporters.

More interesting will be the reaction of state and local politicos who have thrown up procrustean (not to mention foolhardy and counterproductive) sanctuary policies in defiance of President Trump's immigration enforcement efforts. Despite his rhetoric on the subject, immigration enforcement has actually been fairly ordinary in practice under the current administration, and more limited in its effect than in most of the previous ones (including the last), as I have explained previously.

Many of those sanctuary policies are in Democratic strongholds, so the question is whether they will continue with a Democrat in the White House. My guess is that they will (see Newton's First Law, of inertia), but if the pressure on Biden to remove criminal aliens gets too great (which it could), he might put the squeeze on his fellow party members further down the chain, as well.

Also interesting to see will be the response of the press as it relates to alien gang members and their crimes.

I have often said (at least since 2016) that what you think about immigration enforcement depends largely on what you think about Donald Trump. And, objectively, most of the press does not think much of Donald Trump, as the following excerpt from The Atlantic reveals:

Tragedy and disaster have always been the stuff that journalism careers are made of. But the Trump era has been especially rewarding to a certain class of Washington reporter. As the White House beat became the biggest story in the world, once-obscure correspondents were recast in the popular imagination as resistance heroes fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.

As the president focused greater attention on the dangers of MS-13 and other alien gang members, the press (at least from my perspective) downplayed those dangers in an inverse proportion, a point that I have alluded to prior posts. But gangs are a real danger to the communities in which they operate, and gang members believe (at least) that they are able to use fear to act with impunity.

In the Queens subway murder case, for example, the alleged killer reportedly shouted in Spanish, "Nobody get involved, we're MS-13, we're going to kill him." FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge William F. Sweeney, Jr. commented after the charges were released:

MS-13 members do all they can to propagate a violent, deadly image as a gang. Their calculation that shouting the gang's name out in front of people on a subway platform will prevent anyone from interfering with a man being brutally beaten and murdered boggles the mind.

With the metaphorical "orange ogre" gone, will there be more reporting on gang members, the crimes that they commit, and the dangers that they pose to the very immigrant communities in which they operate? Exposing gang members, informing the public about their acts so that they can be brought to justice, and detailing the punishments that they receive will diminish their perceived power. Whether that happens, however, is to be seen.

In the interim, I can only state what ICE has done. It has removed 15,645 known or suspected gang members, in decreasing but still significant numbers, since FY 2018. Last year's decline can be explained to some degree by the pandemic, and the restrictions that it has placed on ICE enforcement, and law enforcement as a whole. Nonetheless, ICE carried out a significant number of anti-gang actions in FY 2020. And taken in toto, those actions are still pretty impressive.