Law enforcement officials battling MS-13 on Long Island told a congressional panel Tuesday that the federal government needs to beef up screening and support for unaccompanied children from Central America to prevent the brutal gang from recruiting new members.
Unaccompanied children already have been traumatized by the violence they fled to come to the United States, Long Island police and other witnesses told Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) and Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) at the hearing on MS-13. It was held in the Central Islip federal courthouse not far from a park where the bodies of four young men, believed to be victims of MS-13 violence, were found in April.
Young immigrants struggle with language and cultural differences, lag behind peers at school and sometimes face hostility from their new neighbors, the witnesses said. Without assistance from the federal government and local communities, some have turned to gangs for support and protection.
“Unaccompanied minors are particularly vulnerable to gang involvement, especially those who may have witnessed violence at a young age and experienced significant trauma,” Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said. “Without appropriate interventions, some of these children are destined to engage with criminal gangs such as MS-13.”
The 2½-hour hearing focused on MS-13, which is tied to 17 killings in Suffolk County alone since January 2016. It provided an overview of how gang members entered the United States and recruited new members. Federal, state and local officials testified, as did the parents of two Brentwood teenagers slain in September in what authorities said was an MS-13 attack.
“MS-13 is a morally depraved transnational murderous gang terrorizing innocent people,” King said.
Federal authorities need to do a better job of screening sponsors who take in unaccompanied minors, DeMarco said, calling loopholes in the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement program a threat to national security.
“Some youths are placed in families with siblings who are gang-involved and they are concentrated in towns with high rates of gang activity,” DeMarco said. “This accelerates the cycle of crime and incarceration in many lower-income communities.”
Federal resettlement officials did not return requests for comment.
More than 8,000 unaccompanied minors now live on Long Island, said Patrick Young, program director of the Central American Refugee Center.
King asked Suffolk police Commissioner Timothy Sini and acting Nassau police Commissioner Thomas Krumpter if MS-13 was “gaming” U.S. immigration policies by sending members to the United States through the unaccompanied minors program. Sini said only a handful of about 4,500 kids resettled in Brentwood, Central Islip and other Suffolk County communities have joined MS-13, but he agreed stronger vetting of immigrants and sponsors was needed.
“We have a legal and moral obligation to place these children in our communities,” Sini said, “but we need to do it responsibly.”
Krumpter called on federal officials to appoint caseworkers to unaccompanied minors to ensure they receive social services and other support. “They need to succeed or the gangs will become their families,” Krumpter said. “We have to make sure these kids are being tracked and taken care of.”
Young said Long Island leaders had failed unaccompanied minors. “When the children came to Long Island,” he said, they were met with hostility from some local officials and with illegal exclusion from school.
“Few of the refugee children received any special orientation or welcome to their communities in which they arrived,” Young said. “Some told us they were aware that they were perceived as a problem rather than as children. Federal, state and county governments failed to make provisions for the reception of the children.”
Evelyn Rodriguez, mother of Kayla Cuevas, one of the girls authorities said was killed by MS-13 members last fall, said Brentwood school officials did nothing for two years after she told them that MS-13 members were bullying her 16-year-old daughter. “When our kids are being threatened, they do not contact the police,” she said. “They like to keep it undercover. They like to say they are taking care of it, but they cannot.”
A spokesman for the Brentwood school district did not return calls for comment.
Immigrant advocates, meanwhile, called on federal and local governments to invest more in education and gang-intervention programs. They criticized King for not inviting more immigrant victims of gang violence to testify at the hearing.
“We want to demand that the voices of immigrant families, who are the majority of the victims, be included in this conversation,” said Frank Sprouse-Guzman of Make The Road New York. “We want our community treated with dignity, not with prejudice. It’s time for a change.”
With Chau Lam