Politics

Arrests of Suspected Gangbangers Spike at the Border

Year is barely half over, yet number of MS-13 detainees almost equals fiscal year 2017 total; arrests of all such groups at the border are also up

Seven months into the current fiscal year, U.S. Border Patrol agents already have arrested nearly as many suspected MS-13 gang members as in all of fiscal year 2017, according to the latest available government data.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) data indicate that federal agents apprehended 227 illegal immigrants suspected of being members of the notoriously violent gang, compared with 228 arrests in the 12-month period ending September 30.

Based on the monthly average through April, the Border Patrol is on track to apprehend 389 gang members by the end of this September, the most since agents arrested 437 in fiscal year 2014.

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So far this year, Border Patrol agents have apprehended 436 people suspected of belonging to one of dozens of criminal gangs. That would be the most since fiscal year 2015.

Experts attributed the spike to more gang members’ trying to enter the U.S. and, perhaps, greater scrutiny applied as a result of President Donald Trump’s toughened immigration enforcement policies.

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“It could be either or both,” said Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS). “It could be that they are doing a better job of detecting them because of [having] more leeway to pursue suspicions that they have … Detecting gang members was not as high a priority as facilitating entry of people was under [former President Barack] Obama.”

Fentanyl seizures also are way up. In the first seven months, Border Patrol agents seized 284 pounds of the lethal opioid. That puts it on pace for a 169 percent increase over fiscal year 2017. Fentanyl seizures by customs officials at airports and border crossing stations total 934 pounds, which itself is on pace to nearly double.

Brandon Judd, president of the U.S Border Patrol Council, said officers have not changed the way they search for potential gang members lurking among illegal immigrants nabbed at the border. He said the rising arrests have followed a general increase in illegal border crossings.

“You have to start looking at the numbers,” he said. “Our apprehensions are back to where they were under Obama.”

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Judd said both Congress and his agency failed to take advantage of the steep drop in illegal immigration that followed Trump’s tough rhetoric as he came into office last year.

“We shouldn’t be there in the first place,” he said. “We had all the momentum in 2017.”

Agents detect gang members in a variety of ways. On occasion, illegal immigrants admit their gang ties. Judd said officers also are trained to recognize gang tattoos.

Vaughan, whose organization advocates for tighter border enforcement, said agents also rely on tips, items gang members may carry, and behavior they may exhibit in detention.

[lz_table title=”Gang Arrests Up” source=”Customs and Border Protection”]Arrests of gang members by U.S. Border Patrol agents
|Fiscal year,MS-13,All gangs
2014,437,1 034
2015,335,844
2016,253,702
2017,228,536
2018*,227,436
|
*First seven months
[/lz_table]

Unless a gang member has an outstanding criminal warrant, he gets the same treatment as any other illegal immigrant. Authorities place gang members in proceedings for deportation.

Vaughan said the same treatment also applies to gang members who arrive as unaccompanied minors. As with other youths who come to the border from countries other than Mexico, the law requires the federal government to detain them for only a limited period of time before authorities must release them in the United States, pending proceedings in immigration court.

Many of those gang members skip those court hearings and commit crimes in the United States.

Joseph Kolb, executive director of the Southwest Gang Information Center, told LifeZette that the increase in gang members crossing the border is evident in hotspots throughout the United States.

“Communities like Long Island are getting swamped again.”

“Communities like Long Island are getting swamped again,” he said.

Trump has talked repeatedly about MS-13, short for Mara Salvatrucha, a gang formed by immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s, which then spread to El Salvador. In recent years, brutal violence attributed to the gang has increased significantly.

Kolb said part of the reason for the surge is the so-called unaccompanied minor crisis that began in summer 2014 and has ebbed and flowed since then.

Hundreds of thousands of children traveling alone and children traveling with adults have come to the U.S. Some of the people in that flow, Kolb said, have been gang members. Others become gang recruiting targets.

Vaughan said the government ought to be able to treat gang members differently from other unaccompanied minors rather than waiting for them to commit crimes. A provision in immigration legislation sponsored by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) would allow for that.

Related: Virginia Gang Task Force Chief Warns MS-13 Has ‘Overwhelmed’ the Resources

Judd, of the Border Patrol union, said there are steps the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could take under existing law. One would be to place unaccompanied minors in foster homes rather than with relatives in the U.S. For children traveling with adults, he said, authorities could separate them and detain the parents while placing the children in faster care.

Although provocative moves like that undoubtedly would spark a backlash, Judd said it would create a powerful deterrent for would-be border jumpers.

As for the increase in fentanyl seizures — even as seizures of other drugs have declined — Judd said the shift reflects changing demand in the United States. In short, he said, international drug organizations go where the money is.

“These criminal cartels are a business,” he said. “They’re going to base business off of profit-loss analysis.”

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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