Dangerous new immigration law passed by the House
ICE agents carry out an arrest, Feb. 7. | Charles Reed / U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement via AP

On Sept. 14, the House of Representatives passed, on a mostly party line vote, a dangerous piece of legislation which threatens the rights not only of immigrants but of the general public.

The bill, which now goes to the Senate, is HR 3697, the “Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act,” billed as a measure “to amend the Immigration and Nationality Act with respect to aliens associated with criminal gangs.” The chief sponsor is Barbara Comstock, R-Va.

The thrust of the bill is to give the government greatly expanded power to define organizations as “criminal gangs” and then to round up non-citizen members—undocumented or documented—and deport them with a minimum of due process. The process for a group to challenge its classification by the government as a “gang” would be cumbersome to the point of uselessness.

In the words of Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of the Leadership Council on Civil and Human Rights, the bill, if it becomes law, “would subject people who have never committed a crime to deportation, creating a new definition of ‘criminal gang’ that is unworkably vague and could cover a wide variety of organizations ranging from churches to fraternities and political groups.”

Local police would be given immense power to feed information to the federal government on supposed gangs and gang members, leading to a danger of abusive actions of the type seen in the Rampart scandal of the late 1990s. In that case, corrupt Los Angeles police officers were involved in frame-ups of Latino young people, in at least some cases leading to attempts to deport innocent individuals. Los Angeles is, of course, by no means the only city which has suffered from that kind of corruption and abuse.

The National Immigrant Justice Center adds:

“Anti-immigrant members of Congress have repeatedly introduced iterations of this bill over many years. These proposals are meant to facilitate mass deportation and vilify entire communities of immigrants… But after some members of Congress recently stated that they would only support a DREAM Act that includes enforcement provisions, there is a perfect storm of political pressure and incentive to make this bill, and others like it, more of a threat than ever before.”

The National Immigrant Justice Center, along with the Immigration Legal Resource Center and the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers’ Guild, submitted a letter to the House of Representatives which describes the dangers of the bill in greater detail.

For example, as written, the bill would deny bond, would return people fleeing violence in their homelands to return to face persecution or death, and would allow people to be arrested and deported on the basis of alleged gang members they simply know, a classic example of “guilt by association” and thus a violation of the elementary principles of due process.

DACA beneficiaries and Dreamers would be in very great danger of falling afoul of this legislation, even if they had committed no crimes.

To legitimize repression on the basis of “guilt by association” clearly endangers the rights not only of immigrants, but of all of us.

Because of these and other concerns, 350 organizations, ranging from churches to labor unions to civil liberties groups, signed a letter asking that the bill not be approved.

Nevertheless, the bill passed the House by 233 “yeas” to 175 “nays,” with 25 members not voting.

Support for the measures by Republican congresspersons was overwhelming: 222 in favor, one opposed, and 16 not voting. The vast majority of the Democrats voted against the legislation, with 11 in favor, 174 opposed, and nine not voting.

The purpose of the bill is self-evidently to continue to scapegoat and intimidate immigrant communities. It is a logical extension of the anti-immigrant vitriol that Trump and some of his allies spouted during last year’s election campaign. It builds on the oft-repeated lie that undocumented Latino immigrants are responsible for the rise in violent crime nationwide.

The promoters of the bill don’t understand, or don’t care, anything about the real life of struggling low income families in inner city neighborhoods. The growth of gangs has been a long-term process, not a simple “invasion of foreign criminals.” And immigrant communities continue to fight back against the dynamics that cause the gang problem, without much support from the institutions of the wider society.

From 1971 to 2004, I lived in mostly Latino immigrant communities in Chicago. Since 2011, I have lived in a majority-minority, working class community in Northern Virginia. In my immediate neighborhood, many of the adults are first generation immigrants from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. There is a presence in our region of Mara Salvatrucha or MS 13, which is a ferocious and violent entity. This gang started in Los Angeles among impoverished Central American refugees, and spread to el Salvador and neighboring countries when some of its members were deported. In spite of its very real violent propensities, my neighborhood is mostly safe. The “Maristas,” like other gangs these days, are involved in the international drug trade, whose customers are right here in the United States.

In Chicago, there were other gangs, but they were never an exclusively Latino phenomenon, nor were they particularly associated with working class immigrants, with or without documents. One pattern was for Mexican immigrant and Puerto Rican parents to send their children, even the ones born here, “back” to the old country to go to school, specifically to prevent them from being either harassed or recruited by the gangs. Repentant former gang members told me that their whole relationship to the undocumented community consisted of mugging them to steal their meager earnings, in the knowledge that the victims would not dare complain to the police lest for fear of deportation.

If drug abuse were to be effectively combatted in the United States, the business of international drug trafficking would dry up, undercutting the criminal underworld. If undocumented immigrants could get legal status, they could go to the police when they were robbed or assaulted, improving public safety. But HR 3697, like all Trump’s anti-immigrant measures, goes in the opposite direction. Trump and the Republicans have also cut funds for drug abuse prevention and rehabilitation.

HR 3697 now goes to the Senate, where chances of its passage are slimmer. But it will require a fight to stop it anyway, and to break up the game of holding DACA recipients and Dreamers hostage for its passage.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.