What Trump Doesn’t Want You to Know About MS-13

During the portion of Trump’s State of the Union speech where he talked about immigration, he said this:

Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens.  Their two teenage daughters — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — were close friends on Long Island.  But in September 2016, on the eve of Nisa’s 16th Birthday — such a happy time it should have been — neither of them came home.  These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown.

Six members of the savage MS-13 gang have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders.  Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied alien minors, and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school…

Tonight, I am calling on Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminal gangs, to break into our country.

He was, of course, referring to the part of the administration’s immigration proposal that closes “loopholes” in order to allow them to more easily detain and deport unaccompanied child migrants.

But in telling the story of the murder of Cuevas and Mickens, the president left out a lot of the story. First and foremost is the fact that MS-13 was born in Los Angeles, not Central America.

Salvadorans started arriving in the 1980s, when the Reagan administration was sending more than $1 million a day to El Salvador’s right-wing government in an effort to stamp out leftist guerrillas aligned with socialist revolutions in Cuba and Nicaragua. The 12-year civil war left 80,000 dead and more than a million displaced. In 1986, Suffolk County declared itself a place of sanctuary for Central American refugees, but by 1993, this designation had been sacked amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment…

At the same time, a backlash was brewing in Los Angeles, where a ragtag group of Salvadoran teenagers—mostly stoners and metalheads—had started calling itself the Mara Salvatrucha. The gang hardened after facing white, black, and Mexican rivals on the streets and in the prisons. By the end of the 1990s, the MS-13 had gained a reputation for savagery and had sparked copycat groups in other immigrant communities, including on Long Island, where it was declared the largest gang in Nassau County in 2001.

In other words, what we have are traumatized young people who came to this country to flee violence (which we helped to perpetuate) and formed a gang after they arrived. Much as this administration wants to ignore home-grown terrorists in order to fear-monger about immigrants and refugees, they are telling similar lies about gangs.

When it comes to Brentwood, where these murders took place, the school district was starved for funds to manage the influx of minors.

Back in 2014, at the height of the unaccompanied-minor crisis, some school districts on Long Island refused to admit newly arrived Central American kids, citing space concerns and a lack of paperwork. Both excuses are illegal under federal law. Brentwood School District, the largest in the state outside New York City, did not turn kids away, but it struggled to accommodate them. The district was already sore from budget cuts following the 2008 economic crisis, when teachers were laid off, extracurriculars were eliminated, and the school day was reduced from nine to eight periods. Today, Brentwood High School has only two social workers and two school psychologists for 4,533 students.

In addition, local law enforcement simply escalated the problem.

In 2009, the Suffolk County Police Department became the subject of a federal discrimination lawsuit after failing to thoroughly investigate several hate crimes. In 2014, a Suffolk County police sergeant was arrested for stealing from Latino drivers during traffic stops. In 2015, Sini’s predecessor, James Burke [Suffolk County police commissioner], was indicted on charges of both beating a handcuffed heroin addict who tried to steal pornography from him and of covering up the assault.

Two years earlier, Burke had abruptly pulled out of the Long Island FBI Gang Task Force, further weakening the department’s ties to the immigrant community. “We had established ties with every MS-13 clique. We were proactive because we would get tips about planned killings, about gun buys,” retired detective John Oliva told Newsday. “Here it is, years later, and you don’t have those sources.”

When Sini took over in 2015, he rejoined the gang task force, but he has struggled to convince Latinos that police are on their side. In October, when the investigation into Cuevas’s and Mickens’s murders turned up the skeletons of three Latino teenagers, some immigrant advocates accused police of failing to sufficiently investigate when the boys disappeared months earlier. In December, Suffolk County sheriff Vincent DeMarco invited federal immigration authorities back into the county jails, reversing a 2014 policy that prohibited such collaboration. Recent ICE raids in cities across the US have netted scores of alleged MS-13 members, but have also caught parents and students whose only crime was crossing the border.

Immigrants are responding to such moves by severing ties with the government and heading underground.

In other words, what you have in Brentwood is an influx of stressed teens, seriously understaffed schools and corrupt law enforcement that doesn’t understand the importance of maintaining community ties. That is the powder keg that exploded in these murders.

It is possible that a lot of Americans will simply agree with Trump that the best solution is to round up these young people and deport them. The case would me made that they were never our problem to begin with.

But let’s be clear, unaccompanied child migrants come to this country for the same reason immigrants have been doing so for decades—to find a better life. If, upon their arrival, they are met with understaffed schools and corrupt law enforcement, some of them will battle through and do well, while others will be ripe targets for gangs. That is the same scenario being played out among youth of color in urban areas all over this country. Whose problem are they?

At some point we’ll either figure this one out or we won’t. But what Trump doesn’t want you to know is that this is a uniquely American problem.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.