WASHINGTON (CN) – Escalating the immigration-policy debate on Capitol Hill, Trump administration officials called for the Senate’s help Wednesday in fighting the Latin drug gang MS-13.
“The threat is everywhere, not only in Texas,” said Kenneth Blanco, acting assistant attorney general of the Department of Justice criminal division. “It’s in every urban community, every rural community, everywhere in the United States.”
Mara Salvatrucha, as the gang is otherwise known, was co-founded in Los Angeles by a soldier of a brutal civil war that raged in El Salvador for 10 years, fueled in part by President Ronald Reagan’s military aid to Salvadoran death squads.
The United States is now home to a large percentage of the war’s estimated 500,000 refugees, with MS-13 becoming an international criminal organization whose estimated 30,000 members deal in drugs, contract killing, money laundering and arms trafficking.
President Donald Trump grasped the threat of gang violence and its association with illegal immigration as a recurring theme on the campaign trail, and his Justice Department has been outspoken in recent months about prioritizing the fight against MS-13.
Testifying Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary committee, along with representatives of the Departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services, Blanco said lawmakers can help this initiative by allowing more information sharing between federal, local and international law enforcement.
“You can help us take the fight to where it emanates from, work with our overseas colleagues, and make sure that those people never get to the United States,” Blanco said.
Tying the MS-13’s assets to human trafficking and extortion, Blanco said the gang exploits immigrants here from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras by threatening their family members left at home.
With more resources, Blanco said the Justice Department can stem the gang’s spread by coordinating with law enforcement in that so-called northern triangle.
Stoking alarm from Republicans on the committee, Homeland Security official
Matthew Albence said his ability to fight MS-13 is hampered by the refusal of some cities to cooperate with federal immigration holds.
“We know who they are, we know they’re gang members, we know they’re criminals,” said Albence, executive associate director for enforcement and removal operations at Homeland Security.
“But if the county or the city does not allow us to get into the jail to make that final determination to process that individual for removal and take custody of that person,” Albence added, “then they’re released back into the communities to re-victimize them.”
Federal agents use Form I-247, more commonly known as the immigration-detainer form, if they need help transferring an immigrant from local to federal law-enforcement custody. The form asks that local police keep the subject of the request up to 48 hours beyond the person’s eligible release date.
A growing number of local jurisdictions see the call for such cooperation, however, as a blueprint for mass deportation. With these sanctuary cities objecting to the use of state money for federal objectives, the United States has threatened to meet continued resistance with a slash off federal funds.
Democrats at Wednesday’s hearing argued that hard-line immigration might actually contribute to, rather than solve, the rise of MS-13 in the United States.
When the government cracks down on immigration, said Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., undocumented immigrants become less likely to report crimes and cooperate with police.
“I think it’s quite clear that fighting MS-13 doesn’t just demand a coordinated effort on the part of state and local law enforcement,” Franken said. “Fighting MS-13 requires law-enforcement officials have the trust and respect of the communities targeted.”
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said many of the people who attempt to cross the border illegally are fleeing gang violence in their home countries. With immigration reform, he said, the United States can make sure immigrants like these do not fall victim to extortion schemes like those wielded by MS-13.
“There’s a disconnect here between, quote, getting tough on immigration, getting tough on refugees — and really curing what MS-13 is doing in these northern triangle countries,” Durbin said.
Republicans meanwhile called for the United States to take extra precautions with the most vulnerable of immigrants, children who show up at the border unaccompanied.
When these children are placed with sponsors, some of whom are themselves in the country illegally, Sen. Chuck Grassley said they become easy targets for MS-13 recruiters.
The Iowa Republican complained that the federal government does not do enough to monitor the children after placing them with sponsors, making it hard to tell if they fall in with a gang or become victims of human trafficking or extortion schemes.
“There’s a whole period of time where children are being monitored by no one,” said Grassley, who chairs the committee.
Scott Lloyd, the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the Department of Health and Human Services, assured the senator that the process for placing these unaccompanied minors with sponsors is under review.