Status of Known Gang Members Allowed into US Under Obama Now Unknown

By Jessica Vaughan | June 6, 2017 | 9:24am EDT
MS-13 gang tattoo (Wikimedia Commons Photo)

A number of Central American youths who were positively identified by border agents as MS-13 and Sureno 18 gang members were allowed to enter the country in July 2014 under Obama administration border surge policies, according to documents released by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.). Johnson is seeking information from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) on the status of these cases and, most importantly, whether they were released from the HHS facilities to communities in the United States. The youths were initially held by the Border Patrol in Nogales, Ariz., and were later transferred to HHS-run facilities in Virginia, Washington, Texas, New York, and Oklahoma.

The gang members were identified on July 5, 2014, after staff members at the Border Patrol facility saw MS-13 graffiti in the bathrooms. Officers documented 16 juveniles who admitted to gang membership. They were apprehended in South Texas, which at the time was experiencing a major influx of families and youths arriving illegally. Thirteen were from El Salvador, two from Guatemala, and one was from Honduras. Their ages ranged from roughly 15 to 17 years old.

Despite the positive identification as gang members, the youths were transferred to low-security facilities around the country. Eight of the gang members went to the Children's Village facility in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.; three were sent to facilities in Virginia (the Shenandoah Valley Juvenile Center in Staunton and NOVA Staff Secure); two were transferred to the Selma Carson Staff Secure Center in Tacoma, Wash.; one went to a Southwest Key facility in Texas; and three went to a holding facility housed at the Ft. Sill military training base near Lawton, Okla., (joining active duty military families living on base).

A week later, on July 11, Border Patrol agents apprehended two more UACs who were heard in their cells boasting about their gang affiliation and crimes to each other. One was a member of MS-13, who said he joined the gang at age 15, that his job was distributing and selling marijuana, and that he planned to continue doing so after he joined his mother in Houston, Texas.

His cellmate said he joined Sureno 18 when he was 15, had committed robberies and knife assaults, and sold crack cocaine and marijuana. The report said he came to the United States illegally "because his father no longer wanted him to continue his gang affiliation and sent him to live with his brother in New York."

These two were separated from the general population in the Border Patrol holding facility until "being placed." There is no further information available about the disposition of their cases, whether they were eventually placed in a HHS contract facility somewhere, whether they were released, whether they have completed their deportation proceedings, or what has happened to them.

Records released on other occasions show that the government has lost track of most of the youths who arrived in the surge that began in 2012, but which has slowed dramatically since the Trump administration ended the catch and release policies at the border. Immigration court records show that more than one-third of the youths have absconded from immigration hearings, even though most have been offered free lawyers, and that the government does little follow up on the kids.

The large number of placements of troubled youths from violent parts of Central America into areas where MS-13 and other gangs with largely immigrant memberships are already well established has caused a new spike in gang violence that is vexing communities in Virginia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. It will not be easy to eradicate, but immigration enforcement should play a big role.

Jessica M. Vaughan is Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute in Washington DC.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Center for Immigration Studies.

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