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Cornyn: Gap in Refugee Policies Has Enabled MS-13 Recruitment

Two known MS-13 gang members, formerly of El Salvador, Miguel Alvarez-Flores, right, and Diego Hernandez-Rivera appear in court March 2, 2017, in Houston. The pair, who had a Satanic shrine in their Houston apartment, are accused in the killing of one teenager and the kidnapping of another. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)

WASHINGTON – Failed immigration policies have enabled the notoriously violent MS-13 gang to heavily recruit and exploit unaccompanied refugee minors, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said Wednesday.

During a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with officials from Border Patrol, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Cornyn outlined what he described as a gap in the federal government’s approach to the situation.

There are about 200,000 unaccompanied minors in the custody of sponsors around the country, according to officials. Current policy dictates that sponsors do not need to be a family member, a citizen or documented, and agencies have little ability to monitor the sponsor or the livelihood of the minor after they’ve been handed over to Health and Human Services. According to briefing documents, some 80 percent of the 200,000 unaccompanied minors are with undocumented sponsors.

MS-13 has strong ties to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, which at one point was regarded as the most dangerous country in the world. Cornyn presented a hypothetical to officials during the hearing, describing a 16-year-old from San Pedro Sula, the most violent city in Honduras, who immigrates to the United States. Refugee policy for countries like Honduras dictates that agencies cannot hold the individual for longer than 72 hours, must process the person and hand them over to HHS. Individuals from Mexico, on the other hand, could be turned away at the border.

Based on official testimony Wednesday, agencies have little ability to monitor the processed individual outside a check-in call with the sponsor and Unaccompanied Children’s Services.

“If we do suspect that they are of gang affiliation, we do make notification to HHS,” Carla Provost, acting chief for Border Patrol, said.

Scott Lloyd, director for the Office of Refugee Resettlement, said that the “best we can do is scrutinize the sponsor,” though there have been discussions to improve monitoring. The minors are also directed to appear at an undetermined date before an immigration judge to determine whether they qualify for refugee status or another status that will allow them to stay in the country legally.

Cornyn said that without the proper authority, the unaccompanied minors run the risk of melting away “into the great American landscape.”

“I think the gap in our U.S. government’s approach to these unaccompanied minors is pretty obvious. If you’re placing them with sponsors that aren’t even citizens, who may not even be family members, you can’t tell us how many of these children, nobody can really tell us if these children are being trafficked, become recruited as gang members or anything of that nature, can you?” Cornyn asked. “You could use some help from the policymakers, in my view.”

Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said that the government’s “total failure to establish an efficient process and meaningful oversight of the placement of these children has led to the current MS-13 crisis.”

Grassley detailed a long list of MS-13 links to murders, rapes and assaults all over the country. Since 2010, the gang has been linked to 20 killings on Long Island, including victims as young as 16.

Cases cited by the chairman included a gruesome story in which two gang members lured a New Jersey landscaper to Maryland in January with the promise of sex with an 18-year-old woman. MS-13 members ambushed the man and stabbed him more than 150 times. In March, news broke about two gang members who kidnapped three teenage girls, assaulted them for weeks and then murdered one in a satanic ritual.

“With promises of a cultural community and an escape from often harrowing and isolating living conditions at home, MS-13 has become an attractive option for too many minors,” Grassley said. “In spite of ample evidence that UACs are a prime target for MS-13 recruitment, none of the government agencies here today have any statistics about how many of the more than 10,000 gang members in our country entered and were recruited as UACs.”