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Long IslandPolitics

Some LI Congress members not backing Sessions on immigration

Representative Kathleen Rice speaks to a large crowd

Representative Kathleen Rice speaks to a large crowd during a town hall meeting held inside Mineola Middle School, Saturday, March 4, 2017. Photo Credit: Steve Pfost

Several Long Island congressmen and New York’s two senators aren’t rushing to embrace U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ call for tougher immigration and deportation policies as a way to battle violent gangs such as MS-13.

Go after MS-13, yes, some representatives say, but threatening travel bans and deportation isn’t the way to do it. They said people who are otherwise law-abiding but in the United States illegally won’t want to cooperate with police if they fear deportation.

“If we’re going to do the job right and stop this gang, we need to go after them in ways that are actually effective — not with travel bans, and not by deporting immigrants who have no criminal history,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told Newsday in a statement reflecting a view similar to Sen. Chuck Schumer, Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-Glen Cove).

Republican Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) said he supports enforcing and strengthening federal immigration laws but didn’t directly endorse Sessions’ view.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) is the exception. He said it’s a “false argument” to say that the Trump administration’s push for tougher stances on deportation will deter cooperation. King, who invited Sessions to Long Island, said the attorney general made it clear to him the federal government will target only criminals, not the “law-abiding neighbor.”

“He told me that’s not their intention,” King said. “They are focused on getting people who are here illegally AND have committed crimes.”

King added that Sessions “recognizes you are not going break up MS-13 unless you have cooperation from the communities.”

Sessions traveled to Central Islip last week to meet with the parents of two Brentwood teenagers who prosecutors say were murdered by members of MS-13 — a violent gang that originated in California and continued to grow out of El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s. Sessions promised to “demolish” the gang and said he’d spoken personally with President Donald Trump about the Long Island murders.

But the parent of a separate gang victim called Sessions “anti-immigrant” and said the Trump administration conflated hardworking but illegal immigrants with criminals.

The rift exposed an issue for the Trump administration: How to balance pursuing strict immigration laws — with a promise to deport people in the U.S. illegally — with seeking help in combating gangs such as MS-13.

Trump and Sessions repeatedly have sought to connect gang issues with illegal immigration, calling for a crackdown on U.S.-Mexico border crossings. Sessions also called the notion that an immigration crackdown could prevent local cooperation an “exaggerated argument.”

Democrats aren’t endorsing that view, saying Sessions won’t succeed with it.

“Trump and Sessions aren’t going to dismantle MS-13 by building a wall, breaking up families and exploiting people’s fears,” Rice said. “Everyone agrees we need to deport violent criminals who aren’t here legally. But you’re not going to touch a gang like MS-13 when the entire immigrant community is afraid to talk to you.”

“We must do everything we can to crush MS-13 — they are as bad as it gets,” Suozzi said. “At the same time, I’m concerned that some of the president’s rhetoric . . . is discouraging members of the Latino community from coming forward to assist the police. Community policing only works when members of the community trust local law enforcement and, right now, too many Latino immigrants are feeling otherwise.”

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) echoed those remarks while expressing support for deporting criminals.

On the Republican side, Zeldin endorsed community involvement in the effort to battle MS-13 and enforcement of immigration laws. But he didn’t directly address whether deterring gang violence was a justification for tougher deportation and tighter immigration policies.

“We need an all-hands-on-deck approach from the federal, state and local government, as well as from schools, and other organizations and groups within the local community, involving all who care to play a much-needed leadership role to combat this crisis,” Zeldin said in a statement. “This includes enforcement of our nation’s immigration laws.”

King said law enforcement “should definitely” pursue “strict deportation of those with criminal backgrounds, criminal records and MS-13 records.” And he said he agreed with the Trump administration that tighter “vetting” of immigrants could block those with criminal backgrounds. But he said deportation policies were going to be focused on criminals.

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