This article was published at InSight Crime.
US President Donald Trump is doubling down on his administration’s rhetorical campaign against the MS13 as a way to promote tougher immigration laws and border enforcement, but the strategy is likely to impede rather than advance efforts to tackle the gang.
President Trump traveled to Long Island, New York, on May 23 to discuss immigration policy and what he called “the menace of MS13” during a forum in the Nassau County hamlet of Bethpage.
Among the panelists gathered by Rep. Peter King (R-NY) were congressional representatives, federal and local law enforcement officials and family members of several of the MS13’s local victims — all of whom were supportive of the Trump administration’s decision to respond to cases of MS13 violence with an immigration crackdown.
During the event, Trump claimed that MS13 gang members in the United States have “violated our borders and transformed our neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields,” and have “exploited glaring loopholes” to “enter the country as unaccompanied minors.”
Trump reiterated his frequent claims that the United States has the “worst immigration laws of any country anywhere in the world” and accused Democrats in the US Congress of refusing to “close these loopholes” that allow MS13 gang members to “infiltrate our communities.” A White House fact sheet issued just before the event referred to these same “deadly loopholes.”
Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Deputy Director Thomas Homan both pointed to US support for law enforcement efforts against the MS13 in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as a way to stop gang members “before they cross our border.”
Trump’s Long Island visit, his second since entering office, came on the heels of a roundtable held in California last week about so-called “sanctuary cities,” which he and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have blamed for facilitating the MS13’s expansion. During the meeting, Trump referred to undocumented immigrants entering the country as “animals,” sparking a media backlash. Nonetheless, the Trump administration doubled down on the comments, with the White House issuing a press release calling MS13 gang members “animals” ten times.
Trump received a round of applause during the Long Island event when he said, “I was met with rebuke. They said ‘they’re people.’ They’re not people, they’re animals.”
InSight Crime Analysis
Trump’s continuing conflation of MS13 activity and immigration to the United States is painting an inaccurate picture of the gang, leading the administration to adopt ineffective policies that in some cases directly interfere with strategies that could work.
As InSight Crime extensively reported in its multi-year investigation of the MS13, “the Trump administration has used the MS13 as a bogeyman to draw support for its policy of searching out and deporting more undocumented migrants.” However, there is no evidence beyond isolated cases to support the theory that unaccompanied alien children (UACs) are broadly linked to the MS13.
Rather than stemming the MS13’s activities, the Trump administration’s calls to crack down on immigrant communities could hamper investigations. Last year, police chiefs from three different US counties impacted by the MS13 said that Trump’s policies could undermine anti-gang efforts by destroying community trust and disincentivizing residents from providing information to law enforcement. Indeed, some individuals who have cooperated with authorities against the MS13 have nevertheless been put into deportation proceedings.
Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY), whose district includes Bethpage, was not invited to the May 23 forum, but reinforced these concerns in comments given to Newsday.
Suozzi urged Trump to “be clearer in encouraging law-abiding citizens, whether they’re documented or undocumented, to come forward to police with information” because “effective community policing is essential” to “root out the bad guys.”