- REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
- President Donald Trump again mentioned MS-13 in tweet about immigration on Friday morning.
- The gang has been a central focus of Trump’s rhetoric, but it’s not clear the gang is as powerful or as influential as it’s made out to be.
- Trump also criticized El Salvador and Mexico for what he perceived as ineffective response to immigration.
The Trump administration has repeatedly harped on MS-13 in its rhetoric about crime and immigration. In a tweet posted on Friday morning, President Donald Trump emphasized that focus.
“MS-13 gang members are being removed by our Great ICE and Border Patrol Agents by the thousands, but these killers come back in from El Salvador, and through Mexico, like water. El Salvador just takes our money, and Mexico must help MORE with this problem. We need The Wall!” Trump tweeted on Friday, referring to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement as ICE.
But it’s not clear that Trump’s latest comments – echoing previous statements – reflect conditions on the ground.
Immigration arrests up, deportations down
Customs and Border Protection made 310,531 arrests at the southwest border during the fiscal year 2017, which ran from October 2016 to September 2017 – a decline of 25% from 415,816 a year earlier and the lowest level since 1971. Despite increasing slightly during the latter half of 2017, apprehensions at the border remain below previous years.
Arrests by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose officers detain people away from the border, have surged under Trump, total ling 143,470 during fiscal year 2017 – up 25% from the 114,434 recorded the previous year. After Trump took office, arrests by ICE spiked, increasing 40% over the same period in 2016.
The pool of undocumented immigrants ICE is targeting has expanded. But while ICE has arrested more people, deportations fell during Trump’s first months in office. The 2017 fiscal year saw the lowest number of deportations since 2006 – a decline likely linked in large part to the decrease in border apprehensions.
Arrests in the interior of the US have increased, and while ICE and the White House have touted the number of suspected gang members among those arrestees, the links between gangs and some of those arrested are tenuous.
ICE said it arrested 796 people linked to MS-13 in 2017, up from 434 in 2016. Of those 796, 555 were arrested on criminal charges and 241 were detained for removal for administrative reasons. (Some of those arrests came in an operation that began in 2005.)
qIn some cases, however, it’s not clear how those links are determined.
“We’ve seen young people labeled as gang members because they are wearing a t-shirt and a teacher at a school who is not a trained expert thought they overheard something,” Walter Barrientos, organizing director of immigrant-advocacy group Make The Road on Long Island, where MS-13 has a large presence, said in December.
Trump touted Operation Matador, a gang crackdown in Long Island suburbs, during his State of the Union address, but state and federal authorities have released almost no details about the suspects arrested in that sweep.
Immigration attorney Dawn Guidone told the Associated Press she represented about seven Long Island teenagers detained on gang allegations and at least two were deported.
Officials said one of those teenagers was associating with “known gang members.” The student said all he did was wear blue, the color of the gang, and “the gang member he was associating with sat next to him in math class,” Guidone said. “If that’s associating, then I don’t know how to even deal with that.”
Crossing the border ‘like water’
- REUTERS/Carlos Barria
MS-13 was founded in California by Central American immigrants, many fleeing civil wars, in the 1970s and 1980s. Ramped up deportations in the late 1990s and 2000s moved many of them back to countries in the region, and MS-13 and gangs like it were able to reconstitute and expand in weak states still struggling to emerge from those wars.
Gang members have moved back and forth from Central America to the US via Mexico in the past, and the US border patrol continues to encounter gang members or suspected gang members crossing the frontier.
But it’s not clear that MS-13 in recent years has been significantly empowered by arriving immigrants.
Some areas, like Suffolk Country on Long Island and suburban areas around Washington, DC, have seen increases in homicides, many of them high-profile crimes linked to MS-13, in the wake of a massive influx of undocumented minors starting in 2014. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, among others, has connected the wave of unaccompanied minors to increased violence and more activity by MS-13.
But “there is no information that allows the attorney general or Trump’s administration to affirm that these murders are attributable to the arrival of undocumented minors,” Insight Crime noted in spring 2017.
“In fact, there is no study by federal agencies or academic institutions that proves that there is a significant number of gang members among these minors. On the contrary, a large portion of these undocumented youths who come seeking asylum claim that they are fleeing gangs in the Northern Triangle.”
Carla Provost, acting chief of the US Border Patrol, underscored the paucity of gang members among those unaccompanied minors during Senate testimony last summer.
Of the 250,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended between 2011 and summer 2017, Provost said, 159 had or were suspected of having gang affiliations. Of those 159, 56 were suspected of affiliation or confirmed to be members of MS-13.
‘One more ironic twist’
El Salvador has taken considerable efforts to crack down on MS-13 and other gangs that hold significant power in the country.
Hardline, militarized policing strategies, known as “mano dura” policies, have become the norm in El Salvador and elsewhere in the region. But such policies have also significantly increased violence.
“Enfrentaminetos,” a term El Salvdor’s police use to refer to shootouts in which police kill suspected gang members, have jumped from 39 in 2013 to 591 in 2016. But Salvadoran journalists have shown that multiple cases of shootouts were in fact extrajudicial killings.
Congress largely ignored the Trump administration’s request to cut aid to Central America in 2018, but the White House has again called for massive cuts to aid to Latin America in general in 2019. And despite Trump’s complaints about money given to countries in the region, reducing that aid is likely to hamstring the efforts of governments there to assist the US in fighting crime and deterring migration.
“It’s … one more ironic twist, that the same time as Congress is approving $600 million a year for Central America – a third of that, more or less, for El Salvador … in order to slow migration – we’re deporting or threatening to deport all these people back, which is likely to speed it up,” Geoff Thale, vice president for programs at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider in mid-January, after the Trump administration announced it was rescinding temporary protected status for Salvadoran migrants in the US.
Mexico, too, has dedicated considerable resources to stemming the flow of migrants across its territory. In summer 2014, amid the surge in unaccompanied minors arriving at the US border, Mexico implemented Plan Frontera Sur, under which it strengthened border control on its southern frontier.
After that, the number of Central American migrants apprehended at the US-Mexico border decreased considerably, while the number of migrants from that region detained in Mexico more than doubled. In 2015, Mexico detained over 190,000 migrants, more than double the number in 2012. (The number of migrants apprehended at the US border did increase between 2016 and late 2017, before dropping off around the time Trump took office.)
Studies of the program, however, have shown that rather than deterring migration, it has dispersed it, sending migrants along more treacherous routes and exposing them to more depredations by criminal groups in Mexico. The Mexican government has compounded the hardship facing migrants by prioritizing deportations over efforts to protect those who may be fleeing danger in their home countries.