Dozens of gang members, some of whom belonged to the notorious MS-13, were shielded from deportation and released due to "sanctuary" policies last year, according to newly released stats from the Department of Homeland Security.
The revelation could jolt the escalating "sanctuary" debate, especially in California where many of those gang members were located.
"Two-thirds of the releases occurred in California, which has had a strict sanctuary policy in effect since January 2014," the Center for Immigration Studies said in a post on the data, pointing to "obvious public safety problems."
From Oct. 1, 2016 to June 19, 2017:
New Jersey: 2
New Mexico: 2
New York: 4
Rhode Island: 1
Data from Department of Homeland Security
DHS officials provided a breakdown of gang members that were released in fiscal 2017, in response to questions posed in June by the Senate Judiciary Committee at a hearing on the rise of MS-13.
From October 2016 to June 2017, DHS says, sanctuary jurisdictions refused to honor Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detainers on 142 suspected gang members -- where ICE officials ask authorities to detain criminal illegal immigrants so ICE can take custody and deport them.
In the answers, the officials added that the numbers may be on the conservative side as jurisdictions that do not allow officials into jails make it more challenging to identify gang members.
"Because ICE often determines gang affiliation through interviews, ICE cannot speculate about the number of times it was denied access to an alien in the custody of state or local authorities who may have had such an affiliation," the answers read.
Fifteen of those released were suspected members of MS-13, a gang started in the 1980s by Central American immigrants and known for its gruesome crimes. The gang's presence across the country has been an escalating political issue.
“Violence is a central tenet of MS-13, as evidenced by its core motto -- “mata, viola, controla,” translated as, ‘kill, rape, control,’ the DOJ said in a 2016 release.
The majority (89) of suspected gang members released were in California -- whose state leaders are locked in a high-profile battle with the Trump administration, and even some of its own cities, over the state’s sanctuary policies. The Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against the state last month, claiming that the policies prevent federal authorities from enforcing immigration laws.
On Tuesday, San Diego County became the latest local jurisdiction to back the lawsuit, claiming it limits police cooperation with federal agents. San Diego County is the largest county so far to back the suit, and its move comes after Orange County has also supported the administration.
California Gov. Jerry Brown said Tuesday that President Trump’s stance against illegal immigration is “just an inflammatory football that very low-life politicians like to exploit.”
If Trump “wants to round them up like some totalitarian government and ship them out, say that,” Brown said. “But he doesn’t say that because the American people would repudiate him and his party.”
Trump has repeatedly hailed the pushback against Brown and on Wednesday tweeted that there was a “revolution” in the state against sanctuary policies, which he called “ridiculous, crime infested & breeding concept.”
ICE figures show a surge in arrests related to MS-13. In fiscal 2017, there were 796 arrests of MS-13 members, compared with 432 in fiscal 2016 and 322 in fiscal 2015. More broadly, ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO) said that 5,396 gang members were removed in fiscal 2017, compared with 2,057 in fiscal 2016.
DHS is also calling for tougher border security measures to combat MS-13.
In the questions posed to DHS officials, Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, asked officials whether a border wall would stem the violence from MS-13, to which the officials said it would, calling it a “cornerstone” in preventing criminals from entering the country.
“The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) believes further securing our border will impact the medium- and long-term health of MS-13 and the level of violence it perpetrates,” the response said. “As many current MS-13 gang members are illegal border entrants, DHS believes increasing border security will discourage the arrival of both current gang members and potential recruits.”
Additionally, officials said that MS-13 members regularly exploit border vulnerabilities and that U.S. Border Patrol agents arrest MS-13 members trying to enter the country “on a near-daily basis.”
Fox News' Joseph Weber, William LaJeunesse and Paulina Dedaj contributed to this report.