Taking Back the Streets: ICE and Local Law Enforcement Target Immigrant Gangs

WASHINGTON (October 1, 2008) – A new Center for Immigration Studies Backgrounder finds that immigration law enforcement has been highly effective in fighting gang activity around the country. Local law enforcement agencies that shun involvement with immigration law enforcement are missing an opportunity to protect their communities, according to the authors. Since 2005, ICE has arrested more than 8,000 immigrant gangsters from more than 700 different gangs under an initiative known as Operation Community Shield.

The Backgrounder, “Taking Back the Streets: ICE and Local Law Enforcement Target Immigrant Gangs,” by Jessica M. Vaughan and Jon D. Feere, was funded by the Department of Justice and describes the unique public safety problems posed by immigrant gangs. The authors present previously unpublished statistics on gang arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), describe how immigration law enforcement authorities are used to combat gang activity, and offer policy recommendations to improve federal-local cooperation, and without damaging relations with immigrant communities.

The authors can provide statistics for 99 different cities upon request. The full report is available online. An introductory video has also been produced and is available online.

Among the findings:

# Transnational immigrant gangs have been spreading rapidly and sprouting in suburban and rural areas where communities are not always equipped to deal with them.

# A very large share of immigrant gang members are illegal aliens and removable aliens. Federal sources estimate that 60 to 90 percent of the members of MS-13, the most notorious immigrant gang, are illegal aliens. In one jurisdiction studied, Northern Virginia, 30 to 40 percent of the gang task force case load were removable aliens.

# MS-13 activity was found in 48 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

# The immigrant gangsters arrested were a significant menace to the public. About 80 percent had committed serious crimes in addition to their immigration violations and 40 percent were violent criminals.

# The ICE offices logging the largest number of immigrant gang arrests were San Diego, Atlanta, San Francisco, and Dallas. Some cities with significant gang problems, such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston, had few arrests. These cities had sanctuary, or “don’t ask, don’t tell,” immigration policies in place over the time period studied.

# While many of the immigrant gangs targeted were neighborhood operations, others were ethnic-based, such as Armenian Power, Kurdish Pride, or Oriental Killer Boys. But nearly half of the aliens arrested over the period studied were affiliated with MS-13 and Surenos-13, two of the largest and most notorious transnational gangs with largely immigrant membership.

# Nearly 60 percent of immigrant gangsters arrested by ICE were Mexican citizens, 17 percent were Salvadoran, and 5 percent were Honduran. In all, 53 different countries were represented.

# Immigrant gang members rarely make a living as gangsters. They typically work by day in construction, auto repair, farming, landscaping and other low-skill occupations, often using false documents. Some gangs are involved in the production and sale of false documents.

# The research found no “chilling effect” on the reporting of crime as a result of local law enforcement partnerships with ICE. Instead of spreading this misconception, immigrant advocacy groups should help reinforce the message that crime victims and witnesses are not targets of immigration law enforcement.

# All gang task forces should include either an ICE agent or local officers with formal immigration law training, such as 287(g). Programs aimed solely at removing incarcerated aliens, while helpful, are not as effective in addressing gang activity as investigative programs.

# While immigration law enforcement is a federal responsibility, ICE cannot do the job effectively without assistance from state and local law enforcement, particularly when it comes to immigrant gangs.

# Failure to adequately control the U.S.-Mexico border and to deter illegal settlement in general undermines the progress ICE and local law enforcement agencies have made in disrupting criminal immigrant street gangs.