House votes to crack down on undocumented immigrants with gang ties
The House passed legislation on Thursday that would make it easier for the government to deport immigrants suspected of gang activity.
Passage of the bill, largely along party lines in a vote of 233-175, came after Democratic leaders said they had reached an agreement with President Trump Wednesday night to keep protections in place for young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
Eleven Democrats, many of whom face tough reelection races in 2018, joined with all but one Republican in favor of the legislation. Libertarian Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) was the only GOP lawmaker to oppose it.
Thursday’s bill, titled the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, is the first immigration measure considered in the House since the Trump administration’s announcement last week that it is phasing out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program over the next six months.
The Trump administration urged the Senate to take up the legislation Thursday. But the bill’s odds of success are low given the likelihood that Democrats would filibuster it.
“This bill provides law enforcement with the tools they need to improve domestic security and restore public safety by denying criminal alien gang members admission to the United States,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement.
Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on a long-term fix to address the fate of immigrants shielded from deportation by DACA. Conservatives are adamant that any immigration bill should include strong enforcement measures, given their concerns that giving DACA recipients legal status could encourage more illegal immigration.
Lawmakers sought to highlight the recent violence by transnational gang MS-13, which was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s by immigrants who had fled El Salvador. Trump gave a speech to law enforcement in July to draw attention to MS-13, calling its members “animals” who have “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
The legislation considered on Thursday would authorize deportations of immigrants suspected of gang activity, which is less stringent than current law that requires them to be convicted of crimes.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) lamented that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “must sit on the sidelines and wait” for known gang members to be arrested and convicted.
Proponents of the legislation said that the change is necessary because it’s difficult to convict gang suspects, given witnesses’ fear of retribution.
“It will ensure that when ICE positively identifies a known alien gang member, they may act immediately,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), the lead sponsor of the bill who is also one of the most vulnerable House Republicans heading into 2018. “We don’t have to wait until these brutal killers wield their machetes or leave another body on a children’s playground.”
The Northern Virginia region Comstock represents is home to thousands of members of MS-13, which has also been responsible for a string of violence in places like Long Island in New York.
But critics, including civil liberties groups, said the legislation would threaten due process rights.
“The bill broadly overreaches and puts Americans and immigrants at risk of being unjustly profiled,” Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairwoman Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) said.
“We all support efforts to make our cities and neighborhoods safer, including a crackdown on gang violence. But this legislation infringes on constitutional protections, and is irresponsible and dangerous.”
And Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), another member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, accused GOP leaders of trying to scapegoat immigrants.
“Hundreds of thousands of doctors, teachers, nurses and soldiers are going to be yanked from the American economy if Speaker [Paul] Ryan [R-Wis.] does not allow the DREAM Act to go forward in the next few weeks, but his priority is feeding red meat to the anti-immigration wing of his party and satisfying them with a big helping of ‘let’s label Latino youth as machete-wielding menaces,’” Gutiérrez said.
The bill would also define a criminal gang as a group of five or more people whose primary purpose is to commit a felony drug offense, fraud or violent crime, importing or harboring people in the U.S. illegally or obstruct justice.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), a senior member of the House Judiciary Committee, said that the broad definitions could apply to groups of people that aren’t really gangs. She offered religious organizations offering shelter and assistance to undocumented immigrants as an example of what could fall under that definition.
“This may seem reasonable until you look at the offenses listed. These offenses could sweep in many people that no reasonable person would think of as a gang member,” Lofgren said. “That means that under this bill, a religious organization that aids undocumented immigrants could be a criminal gang.”
Under the legislation, people known to be associated with a criminal gang would be prohibited from entry into the U.S.
Groups defined by the government as a criminal gang would have the ability to petition the Department of Homeland Security to remove the designation.
–– This report was updated at 3:55 p.m.