Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Thursday that he is looking to close loopholes in the unaccompanied minor program that has allowed transnational gangs such as MS-13 to proliferate by using it as a recruiting pipeline.
Speaking to law enforcement officers in Boston, Sessions said he is working with the Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Resources to stop “gang members who come to this country as wolves in sheep clothing.”
MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s as Salvadorans fled civil war in their homeland. Since then, MS-13 has spread through Central America, and its leadership is based in El Salvador—mostly within the prison network.
In the United States, the Department of Justice estimates there are around 10,000 MS-13 members—who are primarily illegal aliens from El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. Many members have entered the country through the unaccompanied minor program.
Under the unaccompanied minor program, children under 18 who cross the border illegally and are apprehended by Border Patrol will get transferred within 72 hours to the Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) for resettlement in the United States.
If the children are from Mexico, Border Patrol would have the authority to turn them straight back to their home country. However, the agency cannot turn Central American minors back to Mexico—even if they admit to being a member of a violent gang like MS-13. Border Patrol has to allow them into the United States and process them through the court system (which has its own problems—most notably, a backlog of more than 542,000 cases).
The ORR places the unaccompanied minor with a sponsor, who is often a parent or relative who is in the country illegally. There is no follow-up to ensure the minor attends their obligatory court hearing that will determine their immigration status—whether they can stay in the United States, qualify as a refugee, or be granted some other legal status.
In the two-year period ending September 2016, only 24 percent out of the 35,713 completed cases resulted in the minor being given a legal status, such as asylum or a special green card for juveniles, according to a study by Center for Immigration Studies fellow Joseph Kolb.
ORR Director Scott Lloyd said a cursory review on June 9 in some of its facilities revealed that one-quarter of the 138 unaccompanied minors were voluntarily involved with gangs. Lloyd said four had reported that they were forced into gang participation.
“Guided by their motto, ‘kill, rape, and control,’ MS-13 has assaulted, raped, maimed, and killed just for the sake of it,” Session said in his prepared remarks. “In so doing, they have destroyed communities, the lives of hard-working law abiding immigrants, and left devastation and misery in their wake.”
Sessions said the Unaccompanied Alien Child program is “clearly being abused.”
He said the program continues to place juveniles from Central America into gang-controlled territory such as on Long Island, New York, which has been wracked by MS-13 violence in recent years. During the last three and a half years, more than 4,500 unaccompanied minors have been resettled into Suffolk County, one of the hardest hit counties on Long Island.
Nationwide, almost 200,000 of these minors have entered the United States along the southwest border since fiscal year 2014.
Seventy-five percent of the 200,000 unaccompanied minors hail from El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala. The remainder were born in Mexico. The number of minors from those three Central American countries doubled from fiscal 2011 to 2012, then doubled again from fiscal 2012 to 2013, and again from 2013 to 2014.
“The previous administration enacted an open-door policy to illegal migrants from Central America,” President Donald Trump said to law enforcement officials on Long Island on July 28.
“As a result, MS-13 surged into the country and scoured, and just absolutely destroyed, so much in front of it. New arrivals came in and they were all made recruits of each other, and they fought with each other, and then they fought outside of each other.”
The administration has doubled down on removing MS-13 gang members from the country.
“It is the policy of this administration to dismantle, decimate and eradicate MS-13,” Trump said. “We’re getting them out. They’re going to jails, and then they’re going back to their country. Or they’re going back to their country, period.”
Sessions said the Justice Department has deployed more resources to the border, and added 300 assistant U.S. attorneys to specifically focus on violent crime and immigration—both of which will involve anti-MS-13 efforts.
He is also working on increasing international coordination between U.S. law enforcement and El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
“MS-13 represents some of the worst of the worst when it comes to criminal street gangs,” Sessions said. “We must contain and dismantle this gang, clique by clique and member by member.”