The White House did not provide on-the-record information to back President Trump’s claim that gang members have taken advantage of loopholes and laws to come in as unaccompanied minors. He linked illegal immigration to the violence of the notorious El Salvadoran MS-13 gang, claiming “open borders” have caused the death of many people in the United States.
It’s unclear exactly how many gang members have come to the United States as unaccompanied minors, but federal authorities have identified a small number as suspected or confirmed gang members.
What Trump refers to as “loopholes” are protections for undocumented minors called for by law. Some of these minors are actually fleeing gang violence in their own countries. Experts note that unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to gang recruitment after their arrival in the United States.
Unaccompanied minors from Mexico and Canada can be quickly returned to their countries but those from other countries are placed in formal removal proceedings and can apply for asylum.
Immigration experts told us that while gang members can apply for asylum, it would be difficult for them to receive it.
ICE has reported that operations targeting gang members have led to the arrests of people who came as unaccompanied minors. But it’s unclear if they arrived as gang members or joined gangs after coming to the United States.
Experts on immigration, gangs and criminal networks, and law enforcement have said unaccompanied minors are clearly targets for MS-13 recruitment.
Timothy D. Sini, then-Commissioner of the Suffolk County Police Department in New York (now the county’s district attorney), told a Senate committee in May 2017 that unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to recruitment because they are young, unaccompanied, adjusting to a new country, culture and language, and seek a sense of belonging.
“While the overwhelming majority of these children live law-abiding lives, (unaccompanied alien children) are undoubtedly a source of recruitment for MS-13,” Sini said.
Overall, several studies have found that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than U.S.-born individuals.
“There is no doubt that MS-13 has engaged in serious and heinous forms of violence, devastating families and communities. But the emphasis on immigrants as the source of the gang problem in the United States is misguided,” said David C. Pyrooz, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder, whose research includes gangs and criminal networks.
“The problem is that the constant callouts from the highest office in the land are giving MS-13 the notoriety that they could never achieve on their own accord,” he said.
What Trump in the past has referred to as “loopholes” are requirements explicitly called for in the law. It’s also uncertain how many gang members have come to the United States as unaccompanied minors, but some law enforcement officials said some have.
Experts note unaccompanied minors are vulnerable to recruitment after their arrival to the United States. In many cases, these minors are the victims of the gangs rather than perpetrators of crime.
We rate Trump’s claim Half True.
Many gang members have taken advantage of “glaring loopholes and our laws to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied, alien minors.”
— President Donald Trump on Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018 in his State of the Union address