Rene Mauricio Joya-Villata was arrested in League City on Aug. 24 and is among El Salvador’s 100 most-wanted fugitives. He has no criminal history in the United States and had never previously been caught entering the country illegally, said ICE spokesman Greg Palmore.
Joya-Villata is the second MS-13 member on the Central American country’s top fugitive list to be apprehended in Houston this year.
In April, 36-year-old William Magana-Contreras was arrested on charges of aggravated homicide back home. He had previously been deported from the United States in 2007, according to ICE.
The agency said the arrests are the result of stepped-up collaborative efforts to find Salvadoran criminals here and return them to justice. MS-13 in particular has received widespread attention under President Donald Trump’s administration and the violent street gang is often used as justification for harsh immigration policies.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has called the gang, which originated in Los Angeles in the 1970s, “one of the gravest threats to American public safety.”
In Houston, two MS-13 members were charged earlier this year with kidnapping and torturing a woman and in the “satanic” killing of another.
MS-13 is not the largest gang in Houston; it is among more than 350 gangs with an estimated 20,000 members operating in the area. Local police attributed more than 50 of the 302 murders committed in 2016 to gang violence – though not exclusively to MS-13.
President Donald Trump has often used MS-13 as a political tactic, most recently on Thursday accusing the Democratic candidate for governor of Virgina, Ralph Northam, of “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs and sanctuary cities.”
As lieutenant governor, Northam voted against a bill banning so-called sanctuary cities, even though the state didn’t at the time, and still doesn’t, have any.
Joya-Villata’s deportation came two days after ICE agents arrested another man in Regal Points apartments in southwest Houston.
Residents said several unmarked cars pulled into the complex and detained about five people before arresting one of them, according to Cesar Espinosa, executive director of the advocacy group FIEL Houston.
Palmore, the ICE spokesman, said it was a “targeted fugitive operation.”
He said agents encountered a man who resembled the target, but discovered it wasn’t who they were looking for and that he was here legally. He was released. His acquaintance, however, was here illegally and subsequently arrested.
The man’s wife told Espinosa that her husband had been here for 11 years and had no criminal record or outstanding deportation orders.
Following about a month-long pause in enforcement during Hurricane Harvey rescue and recovery efforts, ICE resumed deporting people on Sept. 20. Palmore could not say how many immigrants have been detained since then, saying the agency was tabulating its end-of-fiscal year statistics.
In all, the Trump administration deported just more than 211,000 immigrants in the 2017 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.
That’s by far the lowest number of people deported in at least a decade, but occurred as the number of migrants agents have arrested since Trump took office in January almost doubled to some 97,500 compared to the same time frame in 2016.
The statistics speak to the challenges the administration faces in removing large amounts of migrants from the interior of the country, where federal agents have far more constraints on how they can deport immigrants in the country illegally than at the borders, increasing the strain on an already overwhelmed immigration court system.