The House on Thursday passed a bill introduced by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) that would expand the authority of the federal government to deport or detain non-citizen immigrants who are gang members or suspected of gang activity.
The legislation, offered as a response to an increase in killings perpetuated by the resurgent MS-13 gang in the Washington region and nationally, would allow officials to take action against suspected gang members, regardless of whether they’ve been convicted of a crime.
The bill was slammed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued it would promote racial profiling, erode due process and unintentionally affect others, such as clergy who try to help gang members.
The Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act was approved 233 to 175. It drew opposition from the four Democrats who serve alongside Comstock in the Virginia delegation. Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), whose district borders Comstock's, spoke against it on the House floor. Six of the seven Republicans in the delegation voted in support; Rep. Thomas Garrett did not cast a ballot.
Although the bill is unlikely to pass the Senate in its current form, the White House said in a statement that President Trump's advisers would recommend he sign it as is.
The bill is in keeping with a strategy used by Comstock, who is seeking reelection in 2018 to a third term, to focus on local issues important to her suburban Northern Virginia district, such as crime and transportation.
The approach helped her keep her seat last year while sharing a ballot with President Trump, who lost her district by 10 points.
Democrats and Republicans say Comstock’s district could be among the most competitive in the 2018 midterm elections, which are expected to be a referendum on Trump.
The president’s unpopularity in the district, which stretches from the Washington suburbs to rural counties along the West Virginia border and is anchored by Loudoun County, motivated eight Democrats to seek the party nomination to challenge the congresswoman.
Comstock has said she wants to continue work done by her predecessor, longtime congressman Frank Wolf, to combat gang violence.
In a speech on the House floor Thursday, she said the bill will ensure that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents can act immediately when they identify a known MS-13 gang member.
"We don't have to wait until these brutal killers wield their machete or leave a body on a children's playground," she said, referring to the November 2015 murder of a man whose body was found in Alexandria's Beverly Park. He died of stab wounds to the head and neck.
Since November 2016, Comstock said, authorities have tied at least eight murders in Northern Virginia to MS-13, and the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force believes as many as 4,000 gang members live in the Washington region.
[With two young people killed, two more bodies found, police see rising gang threat]
Comstock’s bill was sponsored by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) and Rep. Raúl R. Labrador (R-Idaho), who spoke in favor of it.
Goodlatte said whether immigrants are here illegally or have visas or permanent resident status, “it is time to send the message that this behavior simply will not be tolerated.”
King said MS-13 had turned his district into “killing fields,” where 17 young people have been murdered by gang members in the past year and a half. The New York City Police Department and the Sergeants Benevolent Association endorsed the bill, he said.
“We cannot allow gang members to be taking advantage of loopholes in our immigration laws,” King said.
Democrats speaking against the bill said they agreed there must be a way to curtail MS-13, but Comstock’s bill would have unintended consequences and face legal challenges.
“We all agree MS-13 is a problem and I think she’d be better served by working in a bipartisan manner to find a responsible solution rather than doing something on her own that’s probably dead on arrival in the Senate,” Beyer said after the vote.
Immigrant advocates objected to the bill, saying it would give law enforcement wide latitude in designating groups of people as gangs and seeking to deport, detain or block their asylum before a crime has been committed.
“This feels just like yet another barely thinly veiled attempt to criminalize and demonize immigrants in order to justify what this administration has consistently promoted as their commitment to a massive deportation regime,” said Avideh Moussavian, a senior policy attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
She called it a “shameful” slapping of labels on immigrants “to justify infractions of due process and human rights.”
Lawmakers debated the bill on Capitol Hill as President Trump and top Democrats in Congress gave competing accounts of a Wednesday night dinner over which they discussed a deal to potentially protect "dreamers," undocumented immigrants brought to this country as children.
Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) said congressional Democrats should not accept amnesty for the dreamers in exchange for new restrictions on immigrants as described in Comstock’s bill.
“I am committed to not exchanging the safety of dreamers for more deportations or further restricting legal immigration so that there are no available legal avenues for immigrants who help feed us, build our communities and serve our country,” he said in a statement.