U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) has released the fiscal year-end statistics on border apprehensions. If this metric is a reasonably accurate indication of the level of illegal crossings in recent years, then the statistics show that current policies aimed at shutting down illegal crossings during the pandemic are having the very helpful side effect of dramatically reducing the flow of foreign gang members into the country.
In 2020, the number of gang members apprehended by the Border Patrol fell to 363, down from 976 in 2019, a drop of 63 percent. Notably, arrests of members of the arch-rival MS-13 and 18th Street gangs, which both have a membership that largely consists of young men from Central America, many of whom are here illegally, declined even more sharply. Border arrests of 18th Street members went down from 168 in 2019 to just 36 in 2020 (a decline of 79 percent), and arrests of MS-13 members went down from 464 in 2019 to just 72 in 2020 (a decline of 87 percent).
The Border Patrol arrested aliens affiliated with more than 42 different gangs in the last six years, but more than 75 percent belonged to either MS-13, 18th Street, Paisas (a Mexican-led prison gang), Surenos, or Tango Blast (a Texas prison gang comprised largely of Mexicans). This year was the first year since at least 2015 that MS-13 arrests did not top the list; in 2020, there were more members of the Paisas arrested by Border Patrol than any other gang. The number of Paisas arrested has remained relatively constant over the years, which indicates that the overall drop in gang arrests is likely due to the greatly diminished flow of Central Americans to the border after Trump's crackdown, and not due to other possible factors.
Slowing the influx of gang members across the border is likely to be a big help to state and local law enforcement agencies that are grappling with a resurgence of these gangs that occurred during the years of catch and release policies at the border. In certain states, especially New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Massachusetts, a large share of gang members are aliens, and an especially large share of the growth in criminal gang activity is due to the recent influx of illegal border-crossers, especially those arriving as unaccompanied minors.
I recently analyzed data from the Texas Department of Public Safety on gang members arrested, which was cross-referenced with their immigration status. I found that 89 percent of the 2,480 non-citizen gang members arrested between 2011 and 2018 in Texas were illegal aliens. Of these, 58 percent were illegal border-crossers, 17 percent had been removed previously, 9 percent had green cards, 8 percent had skipped out on immigration proceedings, 6 percent were in proceedings when they were arrested for state gang crimes, and 2 percent had arrived legally on temporary visas.
Local communities suffer the consequences when transnational gangs are able to expand their operations in the United States because of lenient border policies, inadequate immigration enforcement, and sanctuary policies. ICE officials have stated that a significant share of MS-13 members arrested in the interior had originally entered the country as unaccompanied minors. In Operation Matador, which took place in Long Island, 99 out of the 274 MS-13 arrests were originally unaccompanied minors, and many have since obtained permanent residency as juveniles.
Local police have found that MS-13 in particular deliberately took advantage of catch-and-release border policies to grow their ranks here. Accounts of some cases have been chronicled by my colleague Art Arthur and research fellow Joseph Kolb, or can be found in many local news accounts. Just this week, for example, federal authorities announced several new charges and arrests in a case involving a series of murders in Maryland and Virginia that were carried out by an MS-13 clique based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.
Jessica M. Vaughan is Director of Policy Studies at the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute in Washington DC.
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on the Center for Immigration Studies.