Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke to reporters at the courthouse in Central Islip Friday after addressing a gathering of Long Island law enforcement officials for more than 20 minutes on his plan to combat MS-13 gang violence.
Here’s a transcript of that question-and-answer session:
Q: How do you square the need for strict enforcement of immigration laws with the need of local law enforcement to gain the trust and confidence of the community, many of whom are undocumented immigrations?
SESSIONS: “Well, I’ll just say this. I think that’s an exaggerated argument, number one. Most police departments don’t follow it. The vast majority in America don’t adhere to it. There’s still opportunities to call into 911 anonymously. And we’re not, to my knowledge, out seeking down witnesses to crimes to deport. I don’t think we have any examples of that. So I think the better policy is to follow the law as Congress has set forth that basically says persons who are convicted of a crime in the United States shall be deported.
Q: You have said before, that anyone who is here illegally is subject to deportation, so can you reassure, or what do you say to those who are undocumented, that if they do report a crime, you won’t deport them?
SESSIONS: “Look, I’m the attorney general of the United States. Congress passes the laws. Persons who enter the country unlawfully are subject to being deported. The president, the secretary of Homeland Security, Gen. Kelly, have made clear that our priority tomorrow, right now is fully invested in dealing with people who come here unlawfully and commit crimes, additional crimes, that’s who we’re focusing on first. The president said . . . and I’ll repeat what I said earlier. We have a very generous immigration system. . . . It cannot be that the attorney general grants immunity contrary to law.”
Q: There were some protesters here. I don’t know if you saw them when you came in, but they are claiming this is merely an attempt to advance an anti-immigration agenda of the president, turning this into a political event, rather than one of substance.
SESSIONS: “Well, the president directed me to focus on international criminal organizations by executive order when I took office. The MS-13, for example, is an international organization, with 30,000 members, 10,000 in the United States, so I think there is nothing anti-immigrant in enforcing the law in that regard. Congressman King [Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford)] shared with me some of your experience here, and it’s more acute perhaps than some other places. But it’s not unlike what we’ve seen in other places. One of the things that you want to do with immigration policy is it should serve the national interest . . .”
KING: “To me, it’s shameful, it’s disgraceful, that leaders in the community, who claim to be leaders, people who claim to be elected officials, are criticizing the attorney general. Imagine what they’d say if he didn’t come, ‘That he doesn’t care about Central Islip. He doesn’t care about New York.’ The fact that we’ve had these vicious murders and within days of my talking to the attorney general, he agreed to come here, to me shows the full strength of the federal government is to eradicate MS-13 and they should be on their knees thanking him, not out there protesting.”
Q: How do you think it got so bad with MS-13? Do you think federal or local law enforcement underestimated that for far too long?
SESSIONS: “I have on my staff now two United States attorneys, Rod Rosenberg just got confirmed, Rosenstein, just got confirmed as the deputy attorney general. And Dana Boente is still the U.S. Attorney in Virginia. But they prosecuted these cases. They report to me. Those were two hotbed areas like here. And Bridget [Rhode, acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York] tells me here that they really did make progress. But the lesson from it is, even the Mafia tends to come back after they’ve been hammered. So you can drive them down, and we will do so. And this time, we’re going to try to keep the pressure on them. I do think there has been some laxity at the border has made it much easier for the leaders in El Salvador to move people into this country. There is no doubt about that.”
Q: Have you made any specific commitment in terms of Suffolk County to fight gangs and do you have any evidence that MS-13 is sending people here?
SESSIONS: “All the experts tell me they are sending people here. They’re sending people into the United States. The evidence also suggests — well it proves — that they’re more cohesive than they used to be. And they’re sending more money back to the gang leaders in El Salvador than 10 years ago. So for some reason, the gang has gotten tougher. It’s more unified.”
Q: Sending money here to fight MS-13?
SESSIONS: “Well what I’ve done already, a month or so ago, has made violent crime and gang crime a priority of the Department of Justice. I talked to the U.S. Attorney here and told her that we are going to redirect — we don’t have a lot of money; there’s not a big increase in our budget, we actually got a small decrease but not as much as most departments — and we’re going to focus additional resources to high-crime areas, and Bridget thinks that this district would, this office would compete very well if there’s a fair allocation. We will be able to increase the number of prosecutors deployed and violent crime will be a high priority.”
Q: Is the DOJ going into El Salvador with any operatives to make any kind of arrests to cripple the organization and bring them back to the U.S. for prosecution?
SESSIONS: “Well, that’s a good question. The Drug Enforcement Administration and the Department of Justice attorneys are in Central America and El Salvador today. We’ve had good relations with their government. They’ve been cooperative with us. I had the attorney generals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in my office a few weeks ago. They’ve been very cooperative. I do believe they share a common interest in targeting this violent network. I do think that maybe there’s some common ground to be reached like maybe more effort can be made to make sure the gang leaders can’t operate out of the jail. That might be too hard to do. So I’m going to continue to pursue that relationship. Career people in the department tell me they believe the attorney generals in those countries are sincere. So we look forward to trying to advance that. That’s just one aspect of it. I’m a believer that you start here and you prosecute the people that commit the crimes, or you particularly target the transports and the organizers and you also look for ways to put pressure on them back home. All of that’s part of the process and is actually part of a plan, a draft plan, that I have in my criminal division right now. So I would just say to you, I participated in efforts again the Colombia cartels. Basically Colombia itself made the final victory in hammering the Colombian cartels. We’ve proven that we can deal with the Mafia and we are going to be able to deal with this too.”