President Trump Hosts Illegal Immigration Roundtable in Long Island, Focusing on MS-13

Alexander J. Segal's picture

On May 23, 2018, President Donald Trump hosted a roundtable on immigration in Bethpage, New York. The roundtable focused extensively on the threat of the MS-13 gang and how its activities intersect with illegal immigration and alien smuggling. The event featured Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Department of Justice (DOJ) officials, three U.S. congressman, local law enforcement officials, and parents of MS-13 crime victims. In this post, we will review some of the more interesting remarks relating to immigration policy delivered in the roundtable with reference to specific times in a video of the event posted by the White House on YouTube. Those who are interested in the issue may want to watch the entire event for themselves, especially to see the remarks by local law enforcement and victims.

President Trump's Roundtable on Immigration in Bethpage, New York:

President Trump, Starting at 3:20 - In what would be a theme of the roundtable, President Trump criticized Congress for not addressing “loopholes” in the immigration laws. He argued that these loopholes are exploited by MS-13, and he criticized the immigration laws of the United States as “the worst of any country in the world.” He stated that, in many case, MS-13 members sneak across the border under the guise of being Unaccompanied Alien Children (UACs), and then take advantage of the special provisions in the immigration laws to pursue gang activities in the United States. Furthermore, he criticized the policy of “catch and release,” which he recently sought to eliminate via a Presidential Memorandum which we discussed on site [see article].

He further noted that the motto of MS-13 is “kill, rape, control.” He detailed some of its heinous activities, including recently murdering a police officer on Long Islandto make a statement, brutally killing multiple teenagers, decapitating a man in Maryland, and engaging in the sex trafficking of underage girls. He reaffirmed his characterization of MS-13 members as “animals,” and he criticized House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for her criticism of the remark, which he described as defending MS-13.

John Cronan, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Starting at 9:35 - Cronan spent most of his remarks providing an extensive list of brutal crimes carried out by the MS-13 gang in the United States. At about 13:25, he discussed in broad terms some of the efforts being undertaken by DOJ to combat MS-13, including targeted prosecutions, surging prosecutors to the border to prosecute immigration offenses, and working with partners in Central America to incapacitate MS-13 members before they can infiltrate the United States.

We discussed DOJ's new zero-tolerance policy for certain immigration-related criminal offenses along the border in a separate article [see article].

Thomas Homan, Acting Director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Starting at 14:20 — Homan explained that ICE has doubled the number of arrests of MS-13 members during the administration of President Trump. He added that in FY-2017 DHS “arrested 896 MS-13 leaders, members, and associates.” Furthermore, he added that DHS had arrested more than 4,800 gang members in total, including MS-13 members. We discuss the statistics referenced by Homan in a separate blog on site [see blog].

Homan noted that ICE made over 300 MS-13 related arrests on Long Island alone in FY-2017. Furthermore, more than 40 percent of these arrests were of verified UACs.

Homan added that ICE is working closely with federal police in El Salvador to attack MS-13 command centers and manage the problem before it reaches U.S. borders. He credited the work and intelligence-sharing of the DOJ and DHS as being responsible for most of the MS-13 arrests in El Salvador.

Later in the roundtable, President Trump joked about Homan's upcoming retirement and stated, in jest, that he hoped he would stay at ICE for a long time. We addressed Homan's upcoming retirement in a blog on site [see blog].

Rod Rosenstein, Deputy Attorney General, Starting at 18:50 - Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein's presence at the event was perhaps noteworthy given the broad dissatisfaction that President Trump has expressed with his handling of matters involving the Russia counter-intelligence probe and the Mueller Special Counsel investigation. However, the two were cordial at the roundtable, where the subject was strictly about the DOJ's efforts in combating illegal immigration and, specifically, the MS-13 threat.

Rosenstein explained that when he was the United States Attorney for the District of Maryland, his office and others began using Federal racketeering statutes to endeavor to dismantle MS-13. While they had initial success, MS-13 became resurgent in recent years.

He attributed the resurgence to the increase in illegal border crossings over the last several years and, specifically, to the increase in UACs. Regarding UACs, he cited to the fact that they are not subject to expedited removal and that there are limits on how long they can be held in immigration custody. Furthermore, Rosenstein added that, for UACs from countries other than Canada or Mexico, DHS is not permitted to effectuate their removal even if they request to return home. Instead, DHS is required to turn them over to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and place them in immigration proceedings. He stated that about 6,000 UACs fail to appear for such immigration proceedings annually. Rosenstein noted that 90% of removal orders issued against UACs each year are the result of the UAC's failure to appear for proceedings. Yet, less than 4-percent are ultimately removed. Rosenstein agreed with President Trump that MS-13 often exploits U.S. laws regarding UACs, but he also explained that many UACs who initially enter with no gang ties are vulnerable to MS-13 recruitment once in the U.S.

Rosenstein expressed the hope that Congress would address current laws on UACs and on illegal border crossings generally.

President Trump, Starting at 28:25 - President Trump noted that many countries from which MS-13 members and other aliens illegally cross the U.S. border are recipients of significant amounts of U.S. aid money. He suggested that some of these countries are not actually serious about addressing the problems being discussed in the roundtable. In response, the President stated that he was considering reducing aid, or cutting off aid entirely, to Central American countries that were not doing enough to address the problems. To this effect, he added that his Administration is already making changes to the aid structure.

Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, Starting at 29:25 - Secretary Nielsen explained that DHS was aware that, in many cases, smugglers of UACs force the UACs to join MS-13 or other gangs in order to pay off their debt for the smuggling. She agreed with the assessments of President Trump and the DOJ speakers on the existence of loopholes that MS-13 exploits. She pledged to continue pressing Congress to close these loopholes. Furthermore, Secretary Nielsen called for a law to allow the DHS to bar known gang members from entering the United States. Specifically, she hoped for legislation that would make known gang members inadmissible to the United States by virtue of their gang affiliation.

Secretary Nielsen noted a large number of asylum applications that are not based on one of the five protected grounds upon which asylum can be granted. She stated that DHS was expeditiously denying these applications as well as applications involving fraud. Secretary Nielsen emphasized that seeking to come to the United States for something such as better employment opportunities is not an authorized ground for asylum.

Finally, Secretary Nielsen noted that DHS had begun work on a southern border wall and on deploying National Guard troops to the border. To learn about the National Guard deployment, please see our full article [see article].

Lee Zeldin, U.S. Representative from NY-1 (R), Starting at 33:00 - Congressman Zeldin concurred with Homan that President Trump's characterization of MS-13 as “animals” was a “nice way of putting it.” He highlighted the importance of identifying the MS-13 threat in order to deal with it.

Congressman Zeldin criticized Congressional Democrats for not working with President Trump to address the danger of gang violence resulting from the current immigration system, especially in light of what he considered to be a generous offer from President Trump regarding the disposition of DACA recipients and other similarly-situated individuals.

Congressman Zeldin echoed calls from Secretary Nielsen for new legislation to address both MS-13 and other threats from resulting from illegal immigration and known gang members. He noted that he had sponsored legislation to create inadmissibility grounds for gang membership. He argued for the enactment of specific laws to allow for the denaturalization of individuals who either engage in gang activity prior to naturalization or within a certain period after naturalization.

Evelyn Rodriguez, Mother of MS-13 Victim, Starting at 53:20 - The roundtable featured the parents of several MS-13 victims starting at about 48 minutes. These testimonials are worth watching. Rodriguez stated that she appreciated the efforts of the Federal Government to deal with the gang violence problem in the immigration context. However, she criticized local school officials on Long Island for not having services in place to counsel UACs and other young illegal immigrants and protect them from gang recruitment. She highlighted the importance of reaching these individuals and the need for schools to ensure that there are severe consequences for gang activities and violence.

President Trump, Starting at 1:01:10 - President Trump gave the concluding remarks to the roundtable. After praising everyone gathered as “incredible professionals” and thanking the parents of MS-13 victims for telling their stories, he stated that the Government is reaching the limits of what it can do without changes to the law. He noted that in the case that gang members are incarcerated, their home countries are often recalcitrant to accept their return, although he stated that his Administration had made progress on this issue [see blog]. Furthermore, he noted that these individuals are often not incarcerated upon their removals to their home countries, and they consequently are able to illegally cross back into the United States. He acknowledged that many of the individuals seeking to cross the border illegally are doing so for good or otherwise benign reasons, but that others, such as MS-13 and smugglers, are seeking to cross to engage in violence and other illegal activities.

President Trump noted that he grew up close to Long Island, and that it troubles him to see what has happened in some of these towns as a result of gang violence, which he compared to a war zone in certain cases. He stated that it was terrible that the Government even has to undertake this effort to destroy MS-13. He praised law enforcement for doing a great job handling the situation despite all of the constraints placed on them, before expressing his gratitude for what they do.


The roundtable at Bethpage provided an interesting collection of views from Government officials and interested parties on the connection between illegal immigration and gang violence. We focused primarily on the immigration policy discussion and proposals, but the roundtable is well worth watching in full. Moving forward, it will be important for Congress and the President to work together to strengthen border security and immigration enforcement while ensuring that aliens in the United States illegally, or otherwise suspected of being removable, are receive all hearings and protections that they are entitled to under law.

President Trump Hosts Illegal Immigration Roundtable in Long Island, Focusing on MS-13