The US House of Representatives has backed a bill designed to facilitate the deportation of suspected gang members, which could affect the many immigrants misidentified as gang members in notoriously problem-ridden databases around the United States.
On September 14, the House passed the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act by 233 votes to 175.
The bill would grant new powers to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to designate a group of five or more people as a criminal gang and to detain and deport any immigrants determined to have participated in the gang or have furthered its illegal activity.
It was introduced as a response to fears over the influence of the MS13 gang in the United States, an issue pushed up the agenda of security concerns by US President Donald Trump, who threw his support behind the law.
DHS's Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) also publicly backed the bill, saying it would aid "efforts to target and dismantle transnational gangs, like MS-13, who pose a direct threat to public safety."
However, the bill faced opposition from Democratic members of congress, who claim it could lead to racial profiling and the deportation of innocent people, reported the Associated Press. It will now pass to the Senate, where it is expected to face stiffer opposition.
InSight Crime Analysis
Prioritizing gang members for deportation has already been DHS policy for several years. But if passed into law, the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act could lead to a range of abuses against immigrants who are not at all affiliated with gangs or gang activities.
For instance, the new powers to define what is a gang are vague and could potentially be applied to any number of organizations or twisted to suit the ends of the authorities.
In addition, in determining gang membership, the authorities are likely to lean heavily on gang databases that are notoriously flawed, and frequently contain unsubstantiated or out of date information.
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As a result, people innocent of any crime, or at least not affiliated with gangs could face deportation without proper due process. Furthermore, the stated focus on the MS13 paves the way for an element of racial profiling when it comes to utilizing the powers bestowed by the law. (The MS13 originated as a Salvadoran gang, though it now has a presence throughout Mexico and Central America as well as parts of the United States and Canada.)
Attempts to make gang membership a crime have been implemented in countries across the region from Jamaica to El Salvador. They have been widely criticized for stigmatizing vulnerable youths while having little demonstrable positive impact on public security. In the case of El Salvador, these laws have been criticized for actually strengthening the gangs by driving youths into their hands.