Senators troubled by MS-13 gang recruiting immigrant children

Senators troubled by MS-13 gang recruiting immigrant children

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee grappled Wednesday with how to deal with the violent MS-13 street gang that's believed to be targeting unaccompanied immigrant children who have fled to the U.S.

Chairman Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyOvernight Health Care — Presented by Johnson & Johnson – House progressives may try to block vote on Pelosi drug bill | McConnell, Grassley at odds over Trump-backed drug pricing bill | Lawmakers close to deal on surprise medical bills GOP senators request interview with former DNC contractor to probe possible Ukraine ties Congressional leaders unite to fight for better future for America's children and families MORE (R-Iowa) said that because of the lack of oversight after an unaccompanied immigrant child is apprehended at the U.S. border and released into the custody of a sponsor, many have been put in dangerous situations from illegal working environments to prostitution rings.

“This precarious combination of events, trafficking to and apprehension at the United States border and placement with inappropriate sponsors, makes unaccompanied children vulnerable to gang recruitment,” he warned.

“With promises of a cultural community and an escape from often harrowing and isolating living conditions at home, MS-13 has become an alternative option for too many young people.”

Grassley said the gang, whose model is it to kill, rape and control, has been linked to dozen of high-profile killings and rapes in cities across the country, including Long Island, N.Y.; D.C. and Houston. 

But Sen. Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenThe job no GOP senator wants: 'I'd rather have a root canal' Take Trump literally and seriously in Minnesota Ninth woman accuses Al Franken of inappropriate contact MORE (D-Minn.) suggested that the Trump administration has deterred the immigrant communities being targeted from calling police to report gang violence.

He said members of these communities being targeted by MS-13 are unlikely to seek the help of law enforcement if they know an officer is going to check their immigration status.

“Fighting MS-13 requires law enforcement officials to have the trust and respect of the communities targeted,” he said.

But Kenneth Blanco, acting assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's criminal division, said immigrant communities are more afraid of the gang than they are of the police.

“It’s an interesting dilemma these victims have when they call the police, because they have to give their names and then are outed to the MS-13 gang members and other gang members and that really, in my 28 years, has been the fear they have of not calling the police,” he said.

“Not so much the other way around.”

MS-13, short for La Mara Salvatrucha, is a gang composed primarily of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador. It has been around since the 1980s and is believed to have more than 30,000 members worldwide, with more than 10,000 in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice. 

Carla Provost, acting chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, told members of the committee there are about 200,000 minor children in the custody of sponsors in the U.S. Sponsors, she noted, are not required to be related to the child or a U.S. citizen.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynTrump, GOP shift focus from alleged surveillance abuse to Durham Russia probe Hillicon Valley: FTC rules Cambridge Analytica engaged in 'deceptive practices' | NATO researchers warn social media failing to remove fake accounts | Sanders calls for breaking up Comcast, Verizon Bipartisan senators call on FERC to protect against Huawei threats MORE (R-Texas) asked if officials know how many sponsored children are being trafficked or recruited by a gang.

Scott Lloyd, from the Department of Health and Human Services office responsible for placing unaccompanied immigrant children with sponsors, said the best his staff can do is scrutinize the sponsors who come forward while they wait for immigration hearings.  

But Cornyn said no one knows how many of these children will actually show up for that hearing and how many will just “melt into the greater American landscape.”

“That’s correct," Lloyd said. "My staff is looking for ways to address that."

“You could use some help from the policymakers in my view,” Cornyn replied.

Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.), meanwhile, wanted to know if sanctuary cities — those that refuse to assist federal immigration authorities — are contributing to the gang problem. 

“Do sanctuary cities contribute to this problem substantially or not?” he asked the federal officials testifying at Wednesday’s hearing.

Matthew Albence, executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told Kennedy, “They are certainly a factor.”

“I think there are some major cities in this country where I can’t even send my officers to go into the jail to interview somebody that’s been arrested for gang activity or is a known gang member,” he said. “And if we can’t go in there and identify that person and take an enforcement action against them certainly that’s a problem.”

Wednesday’s Judiciary Committee hearing dovetails with the administration’s recent immigration crackdown. Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsThe shifting impeachment positions of Jonathan Turley Rosenstein, Sessions discussed firing Comey in late 2016 or early 2017: FBI notes Justice Dept releases another round of summaries from Mueller probe MORE told federal prosecutors in April to consider prosecuting even the transfer or harboring of undocumented immigrants, while President Trump has pushed for a wall to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Trump also issued an executive order barring federal funds from sanctuary cities in January, though a federal judge in San Francisco blocked it three months later.