Group Links Gang Activity in Va. to Illegal Immigrants

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

Illegal immigrants are responsible for much of the gang activity in Virginia, and the relationship among local, state and federal law enforcement agencies should be strengthened to better address the problem, according to a study by a Washington think tank that advocates limits on immigration.

The Center for Immigration Studies has not released its 250-page report examining the relationship between illegal immigration and gang activity in the state, but representatives released several findings yesterday. The group plans to look at the issue on a national scale, but officials said it seemed logical to start in Virginia.

"Virginia is one of the states where there has been intense interest in addressing the illegal immigration problem, particularly the problem of illegal immigration and crime," said Jessica Vaughan, the lead investigator for the project. "It just seemed like a perfect case study."

The study found that 25 to 50 percent of gang members in Northern Virginia and western parts of the state are believed to be deportable immigrants. Vaughan said that because data varied by jurisdictions, the finding was based mostly on interviews with law enforcement agencies, with Rockingham County officials giving the lower estimate and Fairfax County officials the higher one.

Vaughan, who started gathering data last February, said one of the most surprising findings was the disparity in how different jurisdictions are addressing the issue.

In November, the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force issued a progress report that said gang crime was decreasing across the region and cooperation between federal immigration officials and local law enforcement was increasing.

According to the task force, gang crime, not including graffiti, was down 33 percent in 2006. It fell 18 percent in the first half of last year. The task force referred 53 people who were arrested to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in 2006, and at least 84 suspects were referred to ICE in the first half of last year.

Vaughan said that although Northern Virginia has been highly successful in tackling gang activity, with the task force working closely with ICE, communities to the south and west have much less contact with federal immigration officials. Like air in a balloon, she said, if gang members are squeezed out of the area and are not deported or jailed, they will go elsewhere.

"Despite the success in Northern Virginia, much of the state is really unprepared on how to handle this problem," Vaughn said. "That's the finding that we have that should be of most concern to Virginia lawmakers."

Among the study's other findings was that immigration enforcement officers have arrested more members of the gang Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, in Virginia than in any other ICE jurisdiction.

Of the 341 gang members arrested by ICE in the state between February 2005 and September 2007, almost 80 percent were members of MS-13, the study found. Gang investigators estimate that 90 percent of the members of that gang are illegal immigrants, the study said.

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