By Leandra Bernstein
WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — As lawmakers scramble to reach a bipartisan agreement to protect dreamers, beef up border security and address legal immigration by March 5, President Donald Trump underscored another element that he says must be included in an immigration reform deal.
On Tuesday, the president said that any immigration legislation he signs must close the legal loopholes used by gangs like MS-13 to recruit and operate in the United States. The president was so emphatic about changing the laws that he said it was worth shutting down the government.
During a meeting on the MS-13 gang, Trump said he supports a government shutdown if Democrats won't agree to tighten immigration laws: "If we don't change it, let's have a shutdown. ... I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of." https://t.co/IghwpT0aPr pic.twitter.com/rlUMfOu7WD— CNN (@CNN) February 6, 2018
"If we don’t change the legislation, if we don’t rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill...If we don’t change it, let’s have a shutdown. We’ll do a shutdown. And it’s worth it for our country. I’d love to see a shutdown if we don’t get this stuff taken care of," Trump said at a White House roundtable meeting.
The president went on to denounce the "stupidity" of current U.S. immigration law that he and homeland security officials say have benefitted criminal organizations.
"Not another country in the world has the stupidity of laws that we do when it comes to immigration," the president said, saying he could point to "fifteen" such laws currently on the books.
The White House later said President Trump was "not advocating for the shutdown." Moreover, lawmakers are currently not dealing with the controversial immigration issue in the latest plan to avoid a government shutdown. Of course, the president can always veto any immigration deal that fails to address the priorities laid out by top administration officials during the White House meeting on Tuesday.
Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., who has been leading bipartisan efforts on immigration reform in recent months, said the president's warning sent a clear message that he is serious about solving lingering immigration and border security issues.
"I respect him taking a principled stand," Tillis said, noting Trump "has done something no other president has done" by laying out the four pillars of immigration reform that must be included in any bill from Congress.
Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said there are "two or three main loopholes" that have been exploited by gangs like MS-13, that she says members of Congress are working to close as part of an immigration deal.
It is not entirely clear which loopholes the president believes are worth a government shutdown, or a veto. During Tuesday's hour-long roundtable discussion, two were discussed at length.
First, Nielsen explained that gang membership, or in the case of MS-13, membership in a transnational criminal organization, does not make an individual inadmissible to the country or a target for deportation. In other words, immigration enforcement agents cannot stop an individual from legally entering the country nor can they target them for removal once they are in the country, solely on the basis of their membership in a gang.
Director of Citizenship and Immigration Services Lee Francis Cissna explained the problem, "We have to wait until they've actually killed somebody or harmed an American, then we have a reason to deport them."
Second, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has repeatedly called on Congress to close loopholes in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA) that have been exploited by criminal organizations to bring young recruits into the country.
At an earlier White House discussion on February 2, ICE Director Thomas Homan explained that the TVPRA "had great intentions to protect children from trafficking. However... the criminal organizations have exploited that law."
Specifically, an unaccompanied minor from Mexico who is denied asylum status will be returned to Mexico, Homan explained, while an unaccompanied minor from the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) will be given a court date and released into the United States. According to ICE, only 3.5 percent of those given a court date show up.
MS-13 has taken advantage of those loopholes in asylum claims to recruit from a stream of more than 21,000 unaccompanied male minors coming from Northern Triangle countries who are between the ages of 13 and 17.
Angel Melendez special agent in charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in New York City, explained, that even though the vast majority of these children are not gang members, MS-13 "is looking at these 21,000 unaccompanied alien children that came into those states as potential recruits to continue to fill in their ranks."
Based on arrest records, ICE has found that approximately 30 percent of MS-13 members entered the country illegally as unaccompanied children.
The four Republican members of Congress who attended the White House meeting on Tuesday are sponsors of a Republican immigration bill that aims to close the legal loopholes identified by immigration enforcement and Justice Department officials.
The Securing America’s Future Act includes each of President Trump's core priorities for immigration, outlined during the State of the Union address, and targets MS-13 by making gang membership a cause for deportation or inadmission, and changing the Trafficking Victims Protections Act to prevent its abuse.
The White House appeared to champion the bill on Tuesday, despite the fact that the bill doesn't have a single Democrat supporting it.
None of the authors of the bill were available for comment at the time this report was filed.
The White House has not been forthcoming with specific policy details and a number of Republican and Democratic senators said they had not been in any discussions with the White House about closing specific loopholes as part of an immigration reform deal.
"This is dire," Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said when asked about the president's roundtable focused on combating the threat of MS-13. She stressed that the MS-13 gang presence in the United States "is real, it's serious and it needs to be addressed."
Heitkamp has not been in discussion with the White House about its specific demands for ending immigration legal loopholes, but she said she supports improving border security and cooperation with the North Triangle countries as critical components of stopping the gang from illegally entering the country.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., said he fully supports giving Homeland Security and the Department of Justice the tools they need to "fight MS-13 or any gang that ravages America's streets." But he wants assurance that any new authorities given to immigration enforcement will be used to target criminals, not innocent people.
"If authorities mean going after violent criminals, I'm all for that. If authorities mean rounding up undocumented people who are just working hard here and hoping for a pathway to citizenship, then I'm not for that," he said.
The Department of Justice has described the MS-13 gang as "one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the United States today." MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, began in the Los Angeles prison system in the 1980s and is largely composed of El Salvadoran immigrants or descendants of immigrants. It has the unique distinction of being the only gang to be designated a transnational criminal organization by the Treasury Department.
Based on the most recent estimates, MS-13 has more than 30,000 members worldwide and 10,000 members in the United States. The gang has been responsible for particularly gruesome, barbaric murders as well as other crimes impacting communities across the country.
Since Trump took office, the Department of Justice has surged resources to target MS-13, resulting in hundreds of convictions in the United States and thousands of charges against suspected gang members in Central America.