Violent street gangs including MS-13 are preying on vulnerable teens brought into the country as unaccompanied minors and placed with sometimes poorly-vetted nonfamily guardians, Suffolk law enforcement officials said Monday during a meeting on immigration and safety issues.
The roundtable discussion at the Eastern Campus of Suffolk Community College in Riverhead focused on efforts by Suffolk law enforcement to combat the threat of MS-13 and disrupt their transnational network of drug and sex trafficking.
Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), who hosted the event, said solving such problems will require political compromise and interagency cooperation between local, state and federal officials.
"It is imperative that we come together as one community in rejection of this violence, which has claimed too many innocent lives," Zeldin said.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who attended the event, said "gangs are violent entities that profit off the misery of others. They poison our young people. They poison those suffering from addiction, turn vulnerable girls into sex slaves and commit flagrant acts of street violence to intimidate civilians and other gangs."
MS-13 is believed to be responsible for 17 Suffolk murders during a 16-month period in 2016 and 2017, according to Suffolk County police. Among the victims, police said, was Justin Llivicura, 16, of East Patchogue, who along with those of three others was found murdered in a Central Islip park in April 2017.
Llivicura's parents, who attended the roundtable, said their son must not have died in vain. "He wasn't supposed to be killed," his mother, Blanca Zhicay, said through an interpreter. "He was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Gerard Gigante, Suffolk police chief of detectives, said MS-13 has recruited young people brought into the country as unaccompanied minors from countries including Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and Honduras.
Since 2014, Suffolk has placed about 5,000 unaccompanied children with local families. While most of the children are law-abiding, some fall in with violent gangs, Gigante said.
In May 2017, federal officials launched “Operation Matador” to arrest and deport MS-13 leaders and recruits. The operation led to the arrest of 177 gang members in Suffolk — about 36 percent of them who entered the country as unaccompanied minors, officials said.
Gigante said law enforcement could help address this problem through better vetting of guardians who care for the unaccompanied minors.
Suffolk police, Gigante said, does not have a comprehensive list of all sponsors and has no way to determine if the children are well cared for and taught to steer clear of gangs. "The existing screening of guardians is in dire need of improvement," he said.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement, which places unaccompanied minors, said it prefers to place children with relatives but that all guardians undergo background checks and in some cases home reviews.
While elected officials and law enforcement Monday decried what they described as a broken immigration system, they also stressed the need to create a more efficient guest worker program for East End farms in need of labor.
"We need programs that truly help our farmers and business; one that will be adoptable to the needs of our different commodities without putting additional burdens on our operations with more regulation, time and effort or stipulations that could hurt business profitability," said Robert Carpenter, administrative director of the Long Island Farm Bureau.
Outside the event Monday, more than 60 immigration advocates protested what they contend is an effort by Zeldin and other Republicans to demonize all undocumented immigrants as gang members.
The advocates also complained that Zeldin's staff prevented them from attending the event.
"All voices should be heard," said Anita Halasz, executive director of Long Island Jobs for Justice, a Hauppauge-based advocacy organization.
Zeldin, who is running for re-election against Democrat Perry Gershon, said activists had announced on social media that they planned to "disrupt" the meeting.
In a statement, Gershon said Zeldin's "taxpayer-funded, closed-door 'immigration roundtable' is no more than a charade. It was designed by his campaign for Lee to look tough on immigration — without the inconvenience of including advocates for immigrant communities."