Gang activity in the United States has been increasing steadily since 2004, and our refugee admissions process may be to blame.
According to the 2015 FBI National Gang Report, gangs remain highly active and “continue to grow in numbers and expand in their criminal activities.” These activities include human sex trafficking, prostitution, and building relationships with “Mexican Transnational Criminal Organizations (MTCOs)” and “extremist groups.”
The report identified 96 gang jurisdictions in America that have built connections with extremist organizations, detailing these relationships as mutually beneficial for both groups. Extremists use the gangs to spread their doctrines, and gangs use extremists to bolster membership.
The report notes that “Gangs also refer to extremist ideology to respond to perceived injustices and to enact social change.”
Gangs are also attempting to join the military, police forces, and the judiciary. They are increasingly using social media, too, in order to recruit prospects, communicate with other members, and target their rivals.
After looking at the nation’s refugee admissions process, the reason for the trend becomes clear.
Gangs in Minnesota have been on the rise for the past few years. The Star Tribune reports that violent crime has been up due to “gang-on-gang bloodshed sweeping parts of the city [Minneapolis].” The available data for 2017 shows that the numbers are only getting worse. Every violent crime category in Minnesota has risen between 2016 and July of 2017.
Hennepin County in Minnesota now has one of the largest gang populations in the country. Unemployment is often mentioned as a factor in rising gang membership, but Minnesota has a better unemployment rate than the national average.
However, when looking at one group in Minnesota and especially in Hennepin County—the Somali community—another culprit emerges.
Somali refugees started coming into the United States in the 1990s to escape the civil war in and around Somalia. Their number one destination was Minnesota. And as long as the refugee process places groups where relatives are likely to be, Minnesota can expect more to arrive.
Similar to other refugees coming from war-torn countries—like those from El Salvador and Myanmar—Somali refugees continue to have trouble adapting to Western society. Somalis in America are battling unemployment rates of around 20 percent, far worse than the national average. Like other struggling refugee groups, some have turned to gang activity in response.
In 2009, a CBS story detailed the growing Somali gang problem in Minnesota, where gang expert Jorja Leap in California said, “When there’s unemployment and poverty and lack of external support, there’s gangs.”
With the number of training services and amount of assistance the American government offers to refugees, this “lack of external support” is puzzling.
A study conducted in the early 2000s in Maine, the state with the second highest Somali immigrant population, found that “Only six percent of the Somali immigrants received training and services from the CareerCenters.” It continued: “While the exact reasons are unknown, it is likely that language and cultural barriers contributed to the low participation rate.”
English remains a barrier for many incoming Somali refugees. In 2011, a TwinCities article reported that “as young Somalis entered the school system with little or no formal education or English skills, established gangs targeted the newcomers because they were different.” This led some of the youths in the Somali community to create gangs of their own.
In 2012, Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek spoke to Congress “about the specific emergence of Somali gang-related issues we are having in my county.” There he noted that “Somali gangs are unique in that they are not necessarily based on the narcotics trade as are other traditional gangs…. Somali gang criminal activities are not based on a certain geographical area or turf. Gang members will often congregate in certain areas but commit their criminal acts elsewhere.”
He listed their main crimes: credit card fraud, cell phone and gun store burglaries, witness intimidation, supporting terrorism, and sex trafficking.
Other ethnic groups who arrived through our nation’s refugee program are exhibiting similar trends, the most notorious being Salvadorans and the gang MS-13. As the Washington Post noted in 2017, “MS-13 formed in Salvadoran immigrant communities in Los Angeles in the 1980s, building its ranks with refugees from the country’s civil war.”
Salvadoran refugees also have the lowest English-proficiency rates of any Hispanic group in America, with 71.7 percent of Salvadorans saying they speak English less than “very well” in 2010. According to a Pew research report in 2013, only 3 percent are English-dominant.
MS-13 is widely known for its brutality and killing, as the gang’s motto is “rape, control, kill.” As another Washington Post article reports, “the gang has been linked to shootings, baseball bat beatings, the stabbing of a pregnant teenager who was a federal witness, and the removal of four fingers from a 16-year-old boy’s hands using a machete.”
America’s Burmese community—or those from Myanmar—has a similar problem. They, too, have seen some of their youths turn to criminal activity in crime-ridden areas of Chicago and New York.
According to a Reuters article in 2016, someone from the group RefugeeOne, Kano, noted that “When we [Burmese refugees] are selecting neighborhoods we have to be very careful about the crime rate and gang recruitment, because the majority of refugees come with kids.” Careful, because these kids are popular targets for gang recruiters.
The trend is simple: bringing refugees—who usually aren’t economically stable—into our country without ensuring they have the skills for success will only lead to more crime and more gang activity.
The problem lies in our refugee system. According to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), “The USRAP has no requirements in terms of educational background, English language, or other education in order to consider an applicant for refugee admission to the U.S. The program focuses on providing durable solutions to the most vulnerable refugees. Once admitted to the U.S., the USRAP requires that refugee children attend school and the program strongly encourages refugees to learn English.”
If our nation wants to let in refugees from war-torn countries, which we should certainly continue to do, it’s time to rethink this policy. It is not enough to assume that new migrants will simply learn their way in a society they are unfamiliar with.
The process as it stands now clearly leads ethnic groups that are struggling the most in American culture to create ghettos for themselves, as they are unable to communicate with others. This increases not only gang activity but the amount of welfare spending that these refugees require.
If the intention of our admissions program is to provide “durable solutions to the most vulnerable refugees,” then tackling the English proficiency should be the number one goal. Those who don’t learn our language are doomed to live in the shadows with very little chance of rising out of poverty.
Maybe we should include in our refugee process something that does more than “encourages refugees to learn English.” Maybe we should make it mandatory for them to learn it once here.
Mitchell Rolling is a writer for the Minnesota Republic and an intern for the Center of the American Experiment, a conservative think-tank in Minnesota.