MS-13 and Immigration Policy Priorities

By Preston Huennekens on June 25, 2017

On June 21, 2017, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the activities of the infamous Salvadoran gang MS-13. Their presence in the United States has raised alarm as they have engulfed local communities in bloodshed and crime. One need look no further than their motto — "kill, rape, control" — to understand why the presence of MS-13 in the United States is dangerous.

The members of the five-witness panel described with detail the legacy of MS-13's existence in the United States. Composed of representatives from the Border Patrol, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), and the Department of Justice, the panel advocated for increased attention to this unique and dangerous threat that operates in 48 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia.

It is hard to imagine an ideological schism presenting itself in a hearing regarding a high-profile criminal gang. However, it became clear that some members on the committee were far more concerned with partisan talking points than with the real problem at hand — the spread and violence of MS-13. Sens. Grassley, Kennedy, and Cruz asked important questions on the spread of the gang, its influence and attraction to unaccompanied alien children (UACs), the effect of sanctuary policies on law enforcement's ability to stymie gang activity, and the shortcomings the agencies face in fighting MS-13 and other transnational criminal organizations.

On the other hand, Sens. Franken, Blumenthal, and Durbin repeated each other's talking points almost line for line. The common themes? Immigrants fear police because of deportations in their communities, sanctuary policies benefit local law enforcement, and ... well, that's it. Faced with a trove of information from members of the law enforcement agencies responsible for addressing the MS-13 problem, these senators seemed to miss the point entirely and chose instead to question the recent encouragement and directives from the Trump administration for these agencies to do their job.

Watching the hearing in person, it struck me that there was a clear difference of priorities between the senators present. All of the senators want to stop MS-13, clearly. But while some members asked how shortcomings of policy and enforcement bred these violent crimes, a minority of them decried that enforcing immigration laws was detrimental to the goal of stopping MS-13. A more cynical opinion would argue that this minority of members was more apprehensive of appearing to target or monitor immigrant communities, despite MS-13 being an immigrant gang.

MS-13 is, by its nature, a criminal enterprise that thrives on immigration from El Salvador and other Central American countries to provide a fresh supply of new recruits. Senators of the committee and the panelists described the havoc that international gangs such as MS-13 bring to immigrant communities. Often, the victims of these crimes are other immigrants. Local authorities, state police departments, and the FBI have natural allies in ICE, the Border Patrol, and the DHS who have the tools and the will to combat immigrants with ties to MS-13. Their inclusion in fighting MS-13 should be a non-issue. But Sen. Al Franken began his opening statement by describing an immigrant community gripped by fear of the police. In his statement he said: "crime victims are far less likely to dial 911 if they know that the police officer who responds to that call is going to check their papers."

On the contrary, a significant body of academic research, government reports, and law enforcement experience show that this is a myth. Immigrants are not scared of the police deporting them — what they fear is that the gang discovering they provided the police with information. In the world of organized crime, providing information to police about gang activity is a death wish, and MS-13 has a track record of killing individuals it suspects of being police informants. Their retaliation can extend beyond the United States. As Assistant Attorney General Kenneth Blanco said in his testimony: "[Immigrants] know that back home they have relatives and they have friends. So do MS-13 individuals."

Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois defended his home state's sanctuary policies in Chicago by arguing that Chicago police do not have the resources to act as immigration agents, and that they need more resources from the federal government. Yet those very same sanctuary policies, which are adopted voluntarily by local officials, have been determined to be contrary to federal law, and will disqualify the jurisdiction from receiving several forms of grants and other cash assistance from the Department of Justice. If Sen. Durbin frets over a lack of resources for local police, he should consider counseling them to rescind their sanctuary policies so that they can continue to receive federal law enforcement funding. Also, without sanctuary policies, federal authorities could more easily locate, detain, and remove criminal aliens from Chicago's jails, thereby relieving the burden of local police. That sounds like exactly the kind of federal assistance Sen. Durbin should be asking for.

Finally, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal's main concern was that in a recent gang roundup of 1,378 people, 280 of them were arrested for the "administrative" crime of being in the country illegally. Sen. Blumenthal was "troubled" that these 280 aliens were detained. When confronted with the assertion by HSI Associate Director Derek Brenner that the lack of a criminal arrest did not negate the presence of any criminality, Sen. Blumenthal insisted that a comprehensive report be sent to him regarding the status of all 280 administrative arrests. It should be noted that most illegal aliens, even criminal aliens, are charged and removed on the basis of administrative violations; whether they are murderers, shoplifters, or merely illegal border-crossers. Sen. Blumenthal asked no questions regarding the other 1,098 detained aliens.

MS-13 is a gang with a strong presence in both El Salvador and the United States. Failed immigration policies have certainly contributed to the growth and spread of MS-13 throughout our country. Most senators on the Judiciary Committee understand this and appear to fight for empowering the federal agencies responsible for combating immigration-related gang violence. Some senators, on the other hand, appear to have a different set of priorities.