The Washington Post

The House

- BY JENNA PORTNOY

approved Rep. Barbara Comstock’s bill that would allow the government to deport or detain immigrants suspected of gang activity.

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 immigrants who are gang members or suspected of gang activity.

The legislatio­n, offered as a response to an increase in killings committed 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, 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 state-

ment 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.

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.

Comstock was confident the bill could pass the Senate. “This should fare well in the U.S. Senate because it already has bipartisan support. Out of the eleven Democrats supporting it two are U.S. Senate candidates,” Comstock spokesman Jeff Marschner said in a statement.

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.

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