WASHINGTON (AP) — The House on Thursday backed legislation that would make membership in a criminal gang grounds for deportation as Republicans warned of the dangers of the violent street gang MS-13.
The measure passed on a largely party-line vote of 233-175. The White House has endorsed the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, but it faces uncertain prospects in the Senate.
MS-13 has been blamed for 21 deaths in the suburbs east of New York City in the past 21 months. The killings, many of which have involved teenagers, have caught the attention of both President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, both of whom have visited Long Island in recent months to promise federal action to stem the violence.
Proponents of the House measure described it as a critical tool for law enforcement as the bill gives the Department of Homeland Security the power to designate a group of five or more people as a criminal gang. Those immigrants determined to have participated in the gang or have furthered its illegal activity can be detained and deported.
"MS-13 has turned my district into killing fields. In the last year-and-a-half, 17 innocent young people have been slaughtered with machetes and knives by MS-13," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y. "This is the immigrant community that is being turned into a chamber of horrors by MS-13."
Opponents warned the bill would promote racial profiling and could lead to the deportation of innocent, non-gang members.
"It would shred due process protections and would allow deportations of innocent immigrants based on the flimsiest of evidence," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the Republican chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said it is estimated that more than 10,000 MS-13 members are living in the United States. Whether they arrived illegally or have valid visas or green cards, he said it is time to send the message that the gang activity will not be tolerated. The Virginia lawmaker said that immigration officials now have no basis for removing people based on their membership in dangerous gangs, and since many victims and witnesses are too scared to cooperate with police, many gang members are never convicted of their crimes.
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president "has always made the safety of Americans his highest priority, and encourages the Senate to take quick action and pass this bill."