Take Back The Streets From Immigrant Gangs

By Jessica M. Vaughan on September 16, 2007

The MetroWest Daily News, Sunday, September 16, 2007

The recent enforcement action carried out by the Boston office of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), whose agents swooped through several area towns to arrest 36 members of the notoriously violent street gang MS-13, has touched off a storm of protest among local immigrant advocacy groups. These groups have berated local police for cooperating with ICE, and launched "training sessions" across the state to discourage immigrants from cooperating with law enforcement.

"We understand trying to remove violent people, but in doing so you end up terrorizing entire communities," said the director of Centro Presente, a Cambridge non-profit. Yet judging from the criminal histories of the gangbangers arrested by ICE, it is pretty clear just who has been terrorizing whom.

No random street sweep, the latest operation was carefully planned and executed over three days with the assistance of 12 other law enforcement agencies, mostly local police and sheriffs. It is part of a long-term nationwide ICE effort, known as Operation Community Shield, to identify and remove criminal alien gangsters. All those arrested were members of MS-13, and had rap sheets for crimes such as murder, assault and battery, armed robbery, and drug offenses. All but four were illegal aliens and now face removal. The others were permanent residents whose criminal histories are likely serious enough to cost them their green cards.

For a long time, gangs in Massachusetts were strictly a local affair. In recent years, however, national gangs such as Crips and Bloods have entered the scene, as well as the transnational MS-13, which originated among the large illegal alien communities of El Salvadorans in southern California. It began aggressively expanding its franchises in the early 1990s, migrating eastward. Its membership is now believed to number 10,000 in the United States, and possibly 50,000 more in Central America and Mexico.

Illegal alien gangsters typically are employed by day in construction, auto repair, or other blue collar work, but moonlight at night in retail drug trafficking, theft, extortion, or mob-style violence. Some have had paramilitary training in their home countries and are hardened veterans of the chronic civil strife in their homelands. Their victims tend to be fellow immigrants, as the gangsters know that many newcomers bring with them a distrust of police, and hope they will hesitate to seek help.

MS-13 members are responsible for a number of particularly vicious murders and assaults around the country, including the 2002 rape in Somerville, Mass., of two deaf girls, one disabled and in a wheelchair.

Immigration law enforcement is uniquely well suited to address the problem of transnational gangs. Federal agencies estimate that 80-90 percent of MS-13 members are illegal aliens. This lack of status presents a glaring vulnerability that local police must not hesitate to exploit in their efforts to disrupt the gang's criminal activity. We are stuck with native-born criminals, but need not accept the fiscal and social burden of criminals who have no permission to be here in the first place.

In addition to helping get alien gangbangers off the streets, immigration law also offers valuable tools, such as visas, work permits and other benefits, to encourage, protect, and reward witnesses, informants, and victims of gang crimes.

The Boston ICE Office has arrested about 260 gangsters since 2005, ranking in the top 10 offices nationwide for alien gang arrests. According to ICE statistics, roughly 60 percent of those arrested were involved with MS-13. About one-fourth were 18th Street members (one of the oldest Hispanic gangs, known for recruiting in elementary and middle schools), and one from a gang that calls itself Born to Kill. Nearly two-thirds of the gangsters arrested here are from El Salvador; most of the rest are Honduran, Guatemalan, and Mexican.

Their crimes are serious and often brutal: four were murderers, another four were child rapists, more than 100 had been arrested for assault, another six for armed robbery, and eight more on weapons charges.

When ICE launched Operation Community Shield in 2005, local law enforcement agencies around the country, even those whose political leaders had declared them sanctuaries for illegal aliens, jumped at the chance to help, providing intelligence and investigative support, and welcoming ICE agents on to gang task forces.

In some places, though, including Boston, local immigrants' rights groups have objected strenuously, contending that such cooperation will poison the relationship between local police and immigrant communities and cause immigrants to shy away from reporting crimes. These claims are specious and do a huge disservice to immigrants. No empirical, or even anecdotal, evidence exists to support the idea that an association between local police and immigration authorities produces this so-called chilling effect.

Officials in Florida, Alabama, Virginia and other places where cooperation with ICE has been institutionalized will tell you that local-federal cooperation simply does not incite racial profiling nor stifle reporting of crime in immigrant communities. In fact, the most recent major enforcement action in the area prior to this one, on Nantucket, was launched in response to the pleas for help from the foreign-born residents there who were being victimized.

ICE has only 5,500 special agents to deal with a national illegal alien population of at least 12 million and a criminal alien population of at least 600,000. State and local law-enforcement agencies are encountering a growing number of foreign-born criminals and victims, but lack the expertise to understand the issues involved. Every police force and sheriff's office in Massachusetts owes it to the residents they serve to work cooperatively with ICE and also to acquire a basic understanding of immigration law and how it can help protect their communities.

Jessica M. Vaughan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.