By Brad Jones
SANTA ANA, Calif.—House Speaker Kevin McCarthy threatened to use the congressional spending bill to block funding of a visa waiver program for Chile that has been blamed for a sharp rise in organized crime including home burglaries and robberies in the United States.
The rise in residential and business crimes is linked to a Chilean crime syndicate, McCarthy told reporters at the press conference in Santa Ana, California, following a roundtable discussion with Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, law enforcement officials, and California-based Republicans in Congress.
Chile won’t let the United States do criminal background checks on Chilean nationals entering the United States on visa waivers even though thousands of Chilean nationals have been arrested for organized crime in America, McCarthy said.
“They’re sophisticated,” McCarthy said. “They don’t come and break in the front door.”
These criminals often enter homes from the second story and use “cell phone jamming to turn off your WiFi so your home security doesn’t work,” he said.
“They raid the house stealing the safe. They wear uniforms and camouflage outfits,” he said. “Then they work with China, putting the money back into South America.”
Both McCarthy and Spitzer said the Biden administration has the power to exclude Chile from the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) program that allows the citizens of 40 countries to travel to the United States for tourism or business for up to 90 days without a visa.
“If it’s not fixed by next week, we will put it into our bill,” McCarthy said.
Spitzer urged Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to declare Chile a high-risk country and temporarily suspend visa waivers until further review.
Chile is the only South American country that remains in the ETSA program. The rest have already been prohibited, he said.
He cited a June 14 letter from Juan Gabriel Valdes, the Chilean ambassador to the United States, indicating that more than 350,000 Chileans entered the United States last year.
“That’s 10 percent of the Orange County population—with no background checks,” Spitzer said.
When county prosecutors arrest suspected criminals from Chile, they’re usually released without having to post bail and ordered to appear in court at a later date, but so far none of them have shown up, he said.
“This is jeopardizing public safety. It is a disaster for our communities, and has permeated the country,” he said. “It is scaring the heck out of our population.”
Holding an unclassified document called “South American Theft Group Activities” for September 2022, Spitzer said 211 Chilean nationals were arrested in the United States in that month alone. At the same time, Orange County saw an unprecedented number of home burglaries and robberies.
“We were dealing with a large percentage of those home burglaries involving Chilean nationals,” he said. “What I found alarming about this document is at the bottom there’s an admonition that I am allowed as a member of law enforcement to read and look at this document, but I’m not allowed to distribute it to anybody, or face a violation of United States law and potential prosecution.”
The document contains photographs of more than 400 Chileans who’ve been arrested in the United States in violation of the ESTA program, he told reporters.
Some of the Chilean burglars have worn “ghillie suit” camouflage to blend into the landscape, Spitzer said.
“They’re hiding in the bushes; they’re lying in wait; they’re watching us; they’re surveying us so they can go in and steal from us, and I’m not putting up with it anymore,” he said.
Briefings with the FBI and DHS on June 16 revealed the FBI has been concentrating on transnational gangs since 2018 and noticed an uptick in Chileans committing these crimes in 2019. Additionally, the FBI has a network of 750 members who are monitoring this program across the country, Spitzer said.
Ventura County has been documenting statistics of the crime and found that 3,000 individuals were referred to Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) for deportation in January 2022 alone.
DHS and the FBI have admitted the increase in crime is a “pervasive problem” in the United States, Spitzer said
Rep. Michelle Steel (R-Calif.) said the FBI has tried to remove Chile from the ETSA program, but DHS hasn’t approved the FBI’s efforts to do so.
As a sanctuary state, she said, local law enforcement agencies in California are prevented from reporting these criminals to ICE.
Chilean gangs have expanded “sophisticated criminal operations” in many other states, including New York, Ohio, and Florida, she said.
Rep. Young Kim (R-Calif.) said Chilean criminals surveil homes for weeks in Orange County and burglarize homes of hundreds for thousands of dollars worth of goods they sell online or overseas.
“They launder those funds through the Chinese crime syndicate,” she said.
Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.) said similar burglaries are happening in Riverside County.
“Unfortunately, these Chilean gangs have also been involved in burglaries throughout the Inland Empire,” he said. “So not only do we have a porous border, and they ineffective Sacramento to deal with crime in general, now we have Chilean gangs operating throughout the state of California and, indeed, throughout the United States.”
Calvert said that as a senior member of the Appropriations Committee, he will push to suspend the ESTA program for Chile.
An Orange County woman whose name was not released told reporters her home was recently ransacked and robbed.
On top of financial loss, she said, she has lost her sense of security, and sentimental items that can never be replaced.
“At first, I was in shock. I could barely speak,” she said. “I felt invaded, violated, and unsafe in my own home,” she said. “I felt a sick pit in my stomach. I couldn’t bear to be in our bedroom for several nights. In fact, I could hardly sleep.”