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Remarks at a Roundtable Discussion on Combating the MS-13 Gang

February 06, 2018

The President. Thank you very much. Please. Hi, Lee. Good group. This is a very talented group of people. [Laughter] Well, thank you very much. We need talent for what we're doing, believe me.

We're here to discuss the tremendous threat of MS-13, one of the most violent and vicious gangs anywhere in the world. We've really never seen anything quite like this: the level of ferocity, the level of violence, and the reforms we need from Congress to defeat it.

I'm honored to be joined by DHS Secretary Nielsen, top officials in Federal law enforcement, and our local sheriffs—our great, great sheriffs. We're also joined by Congressman Peter King. Peter, thank you.

Representative Peter T. King. Pleasure.

The President. Congressman Lee Zeldin. Lee, good to have you. You've been working hard on this, you two. I know that. Martha—Martha McSally. Good. I hear you're doing well out there. That's what the word is. Congresswoman Barbara Comstock. Barbara. Thank you, Barbara. Good, nice to have you. And Congressman Michael McCaul, who's really an expert on this subject and has been for a long period of time. It's a tough subject.

MS-13 recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders. And it just comes right through; whenever they want to come through, they come through. It's much tougher now since we've been there, but we need much better border mechanisms and much better border security. And we need the wall; we're going to get the wall. If we don't have the wall, we're never going to solve this problem. And I've gone to the top people. Many of these people are at the table right now, including this group. And without the wall, it's not going to work.

During my State of the Union, I called on Congress to close the immigration loopholes that have allowed this deadly gang to break so easily into our country. My administration has identified three priorities. We went through and looked very closely. We've identified three priorities for creating a safe, modern, and lawful immigration system: securing the border, ending chain migration, and canceling the terrible visa lottery.

We've been discussing it; we've been talking about it. We're talking about it in Congress. We're talking about DACA and how we can work that out. And I think the Democrats don't want to make a deal, but we'll find out.

As Congress considers immigration reform, it's essential that we listen to the law enforcement professionals in this room today. And so I'm going to turn it over to Secretary Nielsen. We'll begin a discussion. And you folks might want to stay for a little while. Okay?


Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen M. Nielsen. Yes, Mr. President, thank you for hosting this roundtable today on MS-13. As you know, it's the first gang dangerous enough to be classified as a transnational criminal organization. We've talked at length of the devastating destruction and violence that it causes in our communities, and we're here today to hear from a variety of folks who work every day to combat this.

First, I'd just like to say it's my privilege to be here of the men and women of DHS and DOJ who make it their job every day to fight this and other violence coming across our borders and also to be joined by members of Congress who have shown great leadership. We thank you for that and always for your support of DHS and DOJ. So thank you all.

In your recently announced framework, as you know, you asked Congress to close loopholes that you just talked about. So when we talk about MS-13, we have two or three main loopholes. The first is, we have an inadmissibility problem, meaning that when they come to our border, I have to let them in. I cannot keep them out by virtue of them being in a gang. Once we catch them and detain them, I cannot remove them by virtue of them being in a gang.

The President. And by the way, these things are unique to our country. No other country has this. This is unique to our country, and it's got to change.

Secretary Nielsen. So the framework that you proposed will close these. And so I remain hopeful to work with Congress on your behalf and the administration's behalf to close these and other loopholes to secure our borders and our communities.

So without going into further detail, I'd like to turn it over to John Cronan, who's the Acting Assistant Attorney General for DOJ's Criminal Division. He's going to walk us through a bit more of MS-13.

Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Criminal Division John P. Cronan. Thank you, Secretary Nielsen. As you know, Mr. President, as you just stated, one of the most significant public safety threats that our communities face comes from MS-13. MS-13 has more than 30,000 members worldwide. But the gang has a particularly massive and troubling presence on United States soil. The numbers are staggering. An estimated 10,000 MS-13 members are living in our country. They're primarily composed of immigrants or descendants of immigrants from El Salvador, and they have infiltrated our entire country.

[At this point, Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

And that is why the Department of Justice, under the Attorney General's leadership, is also focused on stopping the flow of criminal aliens entering our country. The Attorney General has directed his prosecutors to renew their focus on immigration offenses, especially for offenders who have a nexus to gangs or drug cartels. The Attorney General has sent additional prosecutorial resources to the southwest border, and he has created border security coordinators in each United States attorneys' offices. They have been tasked with enforcing our immigration laws with a special emphasis on criminals like MS-13 with a nexus to the southwest border.

And lastly, Mr. President, on the smuggling front, the Department of Justice is working with the Department of Homeland Security to identify smuggling routes and to investigate and prosecute MS-13 smuggling networks.

Mr. President, the Department of Justice, along with the Department of Homeland Security, and our Federal and State law enforcement partners, is committed to taking all lawful measures to end this scourge to our communities.

The President. Thank you, John. Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan. Thank you, sir.

Secretary Nielsen. Thank you.

The President. This is after actually removing thousands of them out—some into the prisons—but literally thousands of people are removed out. But they come back as fast as we take them out. Different ones—not even the same ones—different ones. But they come back.

And we need these immigration laws changed if we're not going to—we're just not going to be able to continue to do this. They just come in so fast, so easy. And then, you have catch-and-release: You catch people, and you have to release them right away.

Not another country in the world has the stupidity of laws that we do when it comes to immigration. And if we don't get them changed—this isn't politics, this isn't Republican and Democrat. This is common sense. So it has to be taken care of. Okay.

Secretary Nielsen. Sir, it's my privilege to introduce you to Angel Melendez, who's the Special Agent in Charge of our ICE office in New York City. I just want to say I'm extremely proud of everything that our HSI office does—all of them. But New York, in particular, leads the fight against MS-13, and they truly, day to day, put their lives in danger.

Rep. King. He does a great job, a terrific job.

The President. Good.

Secretary Nielsen. So, please, Angel.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations New York City Office Special Agent in Charge Angel M. Melendez. Mr. President, good afternoon. This is quite the privilege to brief you on some of our efforts. And one of the things that's very important to address when we're talking about MS-13 is that this is a war. We're at war, a war in their countries against the command and control. It's an issue that we're facing at the borders. And once it goes beyond the borders, it's a war that we're battling on the streets with our local and law enforcement partners.

The most important piece to any strategy in addressing MS-13 is collaboration, intelligence sharing, and immigration enforcement. Collaboration across the spectrum, across the continuum, with countries such as the Northern Triangle countries where we do have vetted teams of foreign national law enforcement officials working side to side with HSI and CBP in those countries.

[Mr. Melendez continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

The fact of the matter is that we continue to arrest, we continue to arrest, and since we haven't been able to shut down the pipeline, they continue to come into our country. And it is something that we need to address to be more effective in disrupting and dismantling, once and for all, MS-13.

Thank you, sir.

The President. We need cooperation from the Democrats. You know that. Because we have to change the rules, we have to change the laws, and that's all part of what we're trying to get approved. Because right now—the way it is right now—you just can't do that. Everything you do is illegal. You can't touch, you can't do anything. And if we don't get those laws changed, we will do better than anybody can do, but still, it will never be satisfactory. Okay. Secretary Nielsen. Thank you. Thank you. I'd like to ask Jessie Liu, the U.S. attorney for District of Columbia, to give us a few examples of cases that she's worked.

United States Attorney for the District of Columbia Jessie K. Liu. Well, thank you very much, Secretary Nielsen. And thank you, Mr. President, for inviting me to be here to talk about MS-13 and what we're doing to combat it here in Washington, DC. As the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, my top priority is the safety of the people who live and work here, and that means protecting them from vicious criminal gangs like MS-13.

[Attorney Liu continued her remarks, concluding as follows.]

Mr. President, we're very grateful for the support that you've given to our efforts, for our close partnership with the Secretary and her team, and for the guidance and resources from our colleagues at main Justice, like Mr. Cronan. And I thank you again for the opportunity to brief you on this today.

The President. Thank you, Jessie, very much. Great job.

Ms. Liu. Thank you very much.

Secretary Nielsen. Thank you. I'd like to turn it over to Director Cissna, who you've been hearing from a lot as we work to revise our immigration system. He's going to talk a little bit about the backlog and how that further exacerbates this problem.

United States Citizenship and Immigration Services Director L. Francis Cissna. So, Mr. President, there's—at the outset of your remarks, you talked about the four pillars of immigration reform that the administration is advancing right now: the getting rid of chain migration, getting rid of the visa lottery, border security, and some sort of DACA fix.

This issue of gangs attaches itself to each of those in a different way, and I think for border security, obviously. If the border is not secure, it's not just a question of border integrity or the integrity of our immigration laws, but as Agent Melendez just described, if these people are coming through because the border isn't secure, it harms public safety in the interior as well. It's all connected.

With respect to the other three, any immigration program that has little to no selectivity is going to potentially allow mala fide actors to come into the country if we're not watchful and if the law does not help us.

[Director Cissna continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

We can take it into account, we can look at it, we can weigh their gang membership against other things in their life, but we are not required to deny them the citizenship. This is untenable, and I urge the Members of Congress sitting here today to help us fix that. That is a horrendous loophole. It affects public safety; it affects the integrity of our laws. It cannot stand. That's it.

The President. Thank you very much. Thanks, Francis.

Secretary Nielsen. Thank you. If we could turn it over to a sheriff from Loudoun County. If you could give us some perspective on the field that would be great.

Loudoun County, VA, Sheriff Michael L. Chapman. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm Mike Chapman. I'm the sheriff of Loudoun County. I'm honored to be here. And we represent probably one of the fastest growing, wealthiest counties in the Nation. Even Forbes magazine, I think, has said we were one of the happiest counties in the Nation. And despite that, we still have gang problems out there. A couple years ago, we had two gang homicides that directly involved MS-13 members as both—against 18th Street members. So that they were both the victims and assailants in this. One was a 16-year-old boy, went in to get on the school bus, got gunned down while just getting ready to go on the school bus. And another victim was stabbed 17 times. He was jumped by other gang members and stabbed 17 times.

[Sheriff Chapman continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

We also—and I know I work quite a bit with Congresswoman Comstock here, and I know she's pushing the bill here, Project Safe Neighborhoods—and I don't want to steal your thunder—but we are looking to get additional funding to make sure that we sustain this Northern Virginia Gang Task Force because it has been so successful in the area.

Thank you, sir.

The President. Thank you, Sheriff, very much.

Secretary Nielsen. I'm just going to turn it over to Chairman McCaul from the House Homeland.

The President. Yes, I would like to hear.

Secretary Nielsen. Before I do, I just want to say, sir, I think what you've heard on this side of the table is it takes a whole-of-Government approach, and we're able to do that under your leadership, which we appreciate. So it's State, local, the Federal partners, and also our international partners. I think you've heard a lot, as well, that we're trying to work with the countries—the originating countries—to help stop it there.

The President. But you can only do as much as the law permits.

Secretary Nielsen. Yes.

The President. And the law doesn't permit you to do very much.

Secretary Nielsen. Yes, sir.

The President. Less than any nation in the world. If other nations see what we're doing—and they do watch what we're doing—they laugh at us. They can't believe that these policies, where you can't get people out that you know are killers—literally killers—and you have to release them. And we're going to change it. One of the things that we'll do is have much better cooperation, because some countries, we—on top of everything else, we give them tremendous amounts of aid, and then they won't take their killers back when we have them. Is that a correct statement, Sheriff? They won't take them back.

Sheriff Chapman. Right.

The President. So we bring them back into the country. They say, no, we don't want them. And yet we give them billions of dollars in aid. So I've told my people, anybody that doesn't take them back, Peter, we immediately say: "That's okay, we just saved a lot of money. We're not going to do it." And immediately, they start taking them back. That's happened in numerous occasions. So they've never done that before. They never thought it was appropriate to talk about aid and the money that we give these countries foolishly.

So I'd like to hear from Michael, and I'd like to hear from Peter and Lee, real quickly, and, Barbara, if you could, and just as to what you think, because I know you've been suffering with this. Peter and Michael, I know you've been so much into it; this is what you do. And I—you've been suffering with this whole thing for a long time.

One of the things that we're trying to do is, in the legislation that we're talking about, we have a lot of laws that nobody even mentions, but they have to be changed. They have to be gotten rid of. And we have very tough provisions for coming into this country. And it will cover you, and I think we're very specific as to what we have to do.

Secretary Nielsen. Yes. Yes, sir.

The President. And we stop catch-and-release, we stop a lot of elements of what we have that are very, very bad and very dangerous for our country.


Representative Michael T. McCaul, Sr. Thank you, Mr. President and Madam Secretary. I was a Federal prosecutor in my home State of Texas, on the border. I've seen the human and drug trafficking and these heinous murders that you've heard about for too long.

And the first bill I introduced was to end catch-and-release. And here we are still talking about that problem. The difference, sir, is that you're President of the United States. The difference is that we now have the political will in Washington to finally fix this problem. I've seen it for a long time as chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.

[Rep. McCaul continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

And so we want to give the Secretary that authority to end and close the dangerous loopholes so we can deport and remove these dangerous criminals from the United States.

The President. So, as you know, we can't do a job—these incredible professionals at the table cannot do their job—unless we change, really, the legislation. And we're going to get it done.

Frankly—I'll go a step further—if we don't change the legislation, if we don't get rid of these loopholes where killers are allowed to come into our country and continue to kill—gang members. And we're just talking about MS-13. There are many gang members that we don't even mention. If we don't change it, let's have a shutdown. We'll do a shutdown. And it's worth it for our country. I'd love to see a shutdown if we don't get this stuff taken care of.

So we have to strengthen our borders, not by a little bit but by a lot. We are so far behind the time. And by the way, the world is laughing at us because they can't believe these policies. They don't have it. I could name 15 of them right now. No other country in the world has what we have. And we're going to get it stopped.

And if we have to shut it down because the Democrats don't want safety and—unrelated, but still related—they don't want to take care of our military, then shut it down. We'll go with another shutdown.

Okay. Peter King.

Rep. King. Thank you, Mr. President. And let me thank you for your leadership. I can't emphasize enough how serious the MS-13 threat is on Long Island. In my district alone, we had 17 murders in 18 months. You were out there. You went to Brentwood, right in the belly of the beast. You saw what was happening.

[Rep. King continued his remarks, concluding as follows.] There's been intelligence of the Suffolk County Police showing that often you have MS-13 in El Salvador actually either pressuring families on Long Island to take these kids or these families are MS-13 families to begin with. And yet the local police are not notified, often, when these kids come in. There's only a perfunctory follow-up. I think we should have fingerprinting of the families, much more. And people complain about it, but again, if a family is going to be taking one of these kids in—and these are the kids going out and recruiting in the schools. Again, 99 percent of the kids are good kids, but on the other hand, more than 30 percent of MS-13 are these unaccompanied minors. So they are—I've been to Central Islip schools and Brentwood schools seeing the harm that these kids are causing.

And again, there's no follow-up by the Federal Government, really, as to families they're with, what these kids are doing. Local police don't even know that they're unaccompanied minors.

The President. And you know, a lot of the follow-up isn't allowed. You do know that.

Rep. King. Right. I know that, yes.

The President. Because the legislation doesn't allow you to go and do the follow-up, which is just crazy.

Rep. King. Now, if a foster child was placed with a family, there's more follow-up by the Government.

The President. Right.

Rep. King. So this is something I would really ask to be addressed, that we vet those families that the kids are going with, and also stand with the police. We have the local, so-called "immigration advocates" who fight Angel every week—they fight ICE, they fight HSI, they fight the local police, they fight the FBI—claiming this is some kind of a plot to deport everyone.

The President. Yes.

Rep. King. The fact is, when you talk to the victims, though—like the Cuevas or Mickens families you had—they will tell you they want you guys to do whatever you can—go in harder than ever. Because it really is—this is life or death. Within a mile of my house, they're digging for bodies. So this is serious stuff.

So I would say that, stay on it, Mr. President.

The President. I know your area very well. [Laughter] I know the problem we've got.

Rep. King. You have the right mix of people. Beautiful mix of people.

The President. We've moved a lot of them out, you know that.

Rep. King. Oh, they do a great job.

The President. And we move them out, and a new group comes in, because the laws are no good. The laws are no good. The people we have—these people are the best.

Rep. King. This guy never stops. He never stops, I tell you.

The President. But the laws are no good. If you had the right laws, your job would be a hundred percent easier, Angel. Do you agree with that?

Special Agent Melendez. Yes. Yes, Mr. President. The President. Then we're going to get them for you. One way or the other, we're going to get them.


Representative Barbara J. Comstock. Well, I have a law that we have already passed in the House. Thank you, Mr. President, and thank you for the opportunity to work on this. I know this is included in some of the other legislation, but we did already pass in the House, the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, thanks to a lot of people here around the table and thanks to the support from Homeland Security and Justice.

And we had bipartisan support for that bill, I would point out, and we had over a dozen—I think a dozen or so—Democrats on board, and I think we already have some Democrat Senators who indicated they would support that. And that would make being a gang member a deportable offense.

[Rep. Comstock continued her remarks, concluding as follows.

And so I asked our ICE agents who were there and local, "How many of these do you have?" They said, "We only have two of these." [Laughter] These aren't expensive items. With—if we can get this $50 million that have actually already gone through the Judiciary Committee, bipartisan support—everybody, all the Democrats and Republicans supported it—and we can get that in place.

Those—that two pieces of legislation will be a big help in addition to the things my colleagues are working on. And I would implore, since I am just over the river and live right by the CIA, and Sheriff Chapman is my sheriff of my largest county, we don't need a Government shutdown on this. We really do—I think both sides have learned that a Government shutdown was bad. It wasn't good for them. And we do have bipartisan support on these things. And I think we need to talk about these cases that are going on.

We've had over eight or so—I've got, I mean, the Washington Post has done some actual great reporting. These are all stories about the—"Gang Killers Recorded a Teen's Final Moments." "'People Here Live in Fear'"—just seven miles from the White House. They've been covering this. And people know, on a bipartisan basis, this problem. And we can——

The President. But, Barbara, we are not getting support from the Democrats. I mean, you can say what you want. We're not getting support from the Democrats. This legislation——

Rep. Comstock. I think if you put this bill up in the Senate, you will see a lot of——

The President. Well, we'll see. That's one bill. But we have to get that. They are not supporting us.

Rep. Comstock. And that would stop—allow the Secretary to be able to stop them at the border, and if they're here, get them out quickly, and have that alone be the deportable offense.

The President. Thanks, Barbara.


Representative Lee M. Zeldin. Well, Mr. President, thank you. It's not just an awareness that you and your administration have towards the issue that we're facing in Suffolk County on Long Island, but you have proven that you will do absolutely everything in your power to address a very personal issue for us. Last year, we had one woman in Greenport, on the North Fork of Long Island, who was murdered, allegedly, by a person who was an illegal immigrant, who was removed from our country and returned again. And we're just hearing the story of the Indianapolis Colt player who was murdered—who was killed as well in the crash.

[Rep. Zeldin continued his remarks, concluding as follows.]

And once again, thank you on behalf of a region of our country that desperately needed your leadership. We know that we have it. You know—we know that you have our back.

The President. I do.

Rep. Zeldin. And I thank you, deeply.

The President. Thank you very much, Lee.


Representative Martha E. McSally. Sir, thanks for the opportunity to be here, and thanks for your leadership in raising awareness on this dangerous gang and our broken immigration system and our failed border polices of the past.

[Rep. McSally continued her remarks, concluding as follows.]

So our bill—Chairman McCaul, myself, Chairman Goodlatte, and Labrador—we address these issues and your priorities. And we're gaining traction in the House on people getting behind our bill. It's common sense. It also includes the inadmissibility and closing that loophole—that bill that we've already passed through the House.

We believe this is the right piece of legislation to address your priorities and get it across the finish line. Who could be against this? We have got to address these issues. This is not a game. This is serious business. And I really appreciate your leadership and your whole team raising awareness.

Daily, people's lives are in danger, as you're out there, going after these guys. But we've got to stop them where I live, at the border. And that includes the border security and closing these ridiculous loopholes that's in our legislation. So we're going to tirelessly work with you, Mr. President, to get this done. Thank you.

The President. Thank you, Martha, very much.

And I just looked at the Secretary—I said: "Did you take care of every one of these loopholes? Because we're not going to have a second chance."

Secretary Nielsen. I agree.

The President. We've got one chance. We don't want to do a half-baked job.

Secretary Nielsen. No.

The President. And you know, one chance. So, Secretary, get it right. [Laughter] Get it right.

Secretary Nielsen. With your help.

The President. We're going to go through hell to get this stuff approved. Peter and Michael and Lee and Barbara, Martha, we're going to get it approved. We have no choice. It's not like we have a choice. It's really—it's common sense, but it's much above common sense. So you have to have every one of these loopholes taken care of——

Secretary Nielsen. Yes, sir.

The President. ——so we don't have to go through this anymore.

Secretary Nielsen. Agreed.

The President. Because no one else is going to be able to get it done. Okay?

Secretary Nielsen. No, just under you.

The President. And I just want to thank everybody very much for being here, friends and talented people. And if we put our heads together, we're going to solve this problem. And with all that was said, we're doing much better than any administration by far—by far. Nobody has even come close. But still, we have a long way to go. We can only be as good as the law.

Secretary Nielsen. That's right.

The President. Because right now, we want to do things, and it's: "Well, there's a law against this. There's a law against that. There's a law against everything." And we have people coming into the country, you can't get them out, and it's ridiculous. Nobody even believes it.

So we have one good shot at it, and it's now.

Secretary Nielsen. Yes.

The President. And hopefully, you get it done, okay?

Secretary Nielsen. Yes, sir.

The President. Okay? Thank you very much. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Potential Federal Government Shutdown

Q. Sir, do you get the sense that there will be a shutdown given the differences over this issue?

The President. I would shut it down over this issue. I can't speak for everybody at the table, but I will tell you, I would shut it down over this issue. If we don't straighten out our border, we don't have a country. Without borders, we don't have a country.

So would I shut it down over this issue? Yes. I can't speak for our great Representatives here, but I have a feeling they may agree with me. Okay? Thank you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 1:57 p.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White House. Acting Assistant Attorney General Cronan referred to Attorney General Jefferson B. Sessions III. Rep. Comstock referred to H.R. 3697. Rep. Zeldin referred to Jaime DeLeon-Tino, who is accused in the murder of Michelle Schiavoni in Greenport, NY, on July 9, 2017; and Edwin Jackson, a linebacker with the National Football League's Indianapolis Colts, who was killed in a car accident in Indianapolis, IN, on February 4. Rep. McSally referred to Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, in his capacity as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador.

Donald J. Trump, Remarks at a Roundtable Discussion on Combating the MS-13 Gang Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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