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 GrassleyGrassley won't attend GOP convention amid coronavirus uptick Meadows teases Trump action on immigration, China, prescription drugs Trump second-term plans remain a mystery to GOP 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 FrankenPolitical world mourns loss of comedian Jerry Stiller Maher to Tara Reade on timing of sexual assault allegation: 'Why wait until Biden is our only hope?' Democrats begin to confront Biden allegations 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 CornynSenators push foreign media to disclose if they are registered as foreign agents GOP senators debate replacing Columbus Day with Juneteenth as a federal holiday New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership 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 Sessions Senate outlook slides for GOP Supreme Court blocks order that relaxed voting restrictions in Alabama Justice Dept. considering replacing outgoing US attorney in Brooklyn with Barr deputy: report 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.