WASHINGTON—The vast majority of MS-13 gang members are in the United States illegally. One study of Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrests made over a 10-year period puts the number at 92 percent.
Many of the gang members are here from El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala through the unaccompanied minor program. A disturbing trend shows that unaccompanied minors coming from Central America become the main targets for recruitment into the gang. Almost 70 percent of unaccompanied minors crossing the border are aged between 15 and 17.
Peter Fitzhugh, deputy special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in New York, said MS-13’s propensity for ruthlessness and violence is what the gang uses to force membership.
“It’s not surprising to me that parents and children are afraid. What we’re seeing is that MS, by and large, is using the schools as recruitment centers,” Fitzhugh said in a May interview with The Epoch Times.
“The fear of not joining the gang is so significant that kids feel compelled—they have no other option but to join the gang,” he said. “Obviously, this is a win-win for MS, because this environment is there and a lot of these kids are vulnerable.”
Long Island, New York, is one of the areas hardest hit by MS-13 violence and recruitment in schools. It also absorbs the nation’s third-highest number of unaccompanied minors. More than 4,700 have been resettled in Suffolk County, Long Island, in the last four years.
President Donald Trump outlined his immigration priorities on Oct. 8, with a list of sweeping reforms that include constructing a border wall and introducing a merit-based immigration system. The unaccompanied minor program was addressed at length—the first time the administration has detailed the extent of the loopholes.
“Rather than being deported, they are instead sheltered by the Department of Health and Human Services at taxpayer expense, and subsequently released to the custody of a parent or family member—who often lack lawful status in the United States themselves,” Trump’s immigration priority document states.
By definition, an unaccompanied alien child is under 18 and has no parent or legal guardian in the United States, or no parent or legal guardian who is available to provide care and physical custody in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Regardless, Homeland Security found that about 60 percent of children who are initially determined to be “unaccompanied alien children” are released by ORR to a parent already living illegally in the United States.
Trump wants to clarify the unaccompanied minor designation and remove the benefits for minors who are living with a parent here illegally. Those benefits include access to food stamps, medical care, and social services.
The counties absorbing the greatest number of unaccompanied minors are Harris County in Texas, Los Angeles County, Suffolk County in New York, and Miami-Dade County in Florida.
These four counties have absorbed around 30,000 unaccompanied minors into their communities and schools in the last several years.
All four counties are also struggling with the proliferation of MS-13 gang violence.
The administration proposes to terminate the 1997 Flores Settlement Agreement and fold its standards of care into the 2008 William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA).
The Flores Agreement is a Clinton-era settlement of a class-action lawsuit that outlined care standards for minors and mandated that minors be moved out of immigration detention quickly. Customs and Border Protection must transfer an unaccompanied minor within 72 hours to the Office of Refugee and Resettlement (ORR), which is part of Health and Human Services.
The TVPRA stipulates that unaccompanied minors encountered at the border who hail from Central America cannot be returned to Mexico, forcing the United States to accept them. Ninety-five percent of unaccompanied minors are from El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala.
Trump wants to amend the TVPRA so that minors who are not genuine trafficking victims can be returned home or removed to safe third countries.
The administration said it also wants to amend the definition of “special immigrant,” which gives green cards to minors who cannot be reunited with a parent due to abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
“The current legal definition is abused, and provides another avenue for illicit entry,” the priority document says.
Acting Director for ICE Thomas Homan said although illicit border crossings have decreased, there has been a recent uptick in unaccompanied minors and family units coming in.
Homan said enforcement plays a role in deterring more illegal immigrants from making the journey.
“Regardless of whether you’re a family or an [unaccompanied minor], once you’ve had your due process and a federal judge has ordered you removed, we’re going to take those orders seriously and take those people into custody and remove them. That’s what we have to do,” Homan said at an immigration event at the Heritage Foundation on Oct. 17.
He said once people in Central America realize there is no free pass to the United States anymore, hopefully they won’t “sell everything they own to pay a criminal organization money to get here—only to be sent back home.”