In January, a federal judge blocked the Trump administration’s executive order to end the DACA program, which protects about 700,000 young undocumented immigrants, or Dreamers, from deportation, and was set to expire in early March. On Monday, the Supreme Court refused to hear the administration’s expedited appeal. That means the Dreamers’ status is back in limbo for at least a few months, unless Congress reaches a deal to make their legal status permanent.
The Dreamers are an attractive archetype for the left in today’s immigration debate. They were brought here as children, through no fault of their own, and are otherwise as American as any native-born citizen. Precisely because they are so sympathetic—polls show anywhere from 70 to 90 percent of Americans saying Dreamers should be allowed to stay—Republicans prefer to talk about a different archetype. Overwhelmingly, what they seize on is immigrant-related gang violence, especially by the notorious MS-13 gang. In September, the House passed the Criminal Alien Gang Member Removal Act, which would make it easier for the Departments of Homeland Security or Justice to deport any immigrants they suspect of gang association. Politically, the bill, which passed with only 11 Democratic votes, is a smart tactic. Negotiations on the Dreamers have shut down the government, but few politicians will stick their necks out too far in defense of gang members.
But as policy, it’s pointless. The U.S. and Latin America have decades of experience with failed hardline tactics against gangs like MS-13. Harsher immigration policies won’t make us any safer from gangs, and could even make the problem worse.
MS-13 was formed in the 1980s, when Salvadorans fleeing their country’s civil war landed on the streets of Los Angeles. Some of these young people ended up in prison, where they created MS-13 to protect themselves from other gangs. MS-13 members adopted the strategies and culture of established American prison gangs and brought them back to their country when they were deported after their prison terms. In 1996, Congress responded to the emergence of these gangs in seemingly the only way it knows how: making it easier to deport their members. Federal legislation broadened the definition of deportation-warranting “aggravated felonies” to include some misdemeanors like shoplifting and gambling offenses, which vastly increased deportation rates. Countries like El Salvador were not prepared to receive so many deportees, many of whom had lived most of their lives in the U.S. The lack of economic opportunities and high rates of violent crime in Central America encouraged migration to the U.S., creating a vicious cycle.
Yet proposing deportation as a solution to gang violence has not lost its shine among congressional Republicans. Barbara Comstock, the Virginia representative who sponsored the House bill, has been especially aggressive in drawing attention to the supposed threat of immigrant gangs. In official statements, she has cited an estimate of between 3,000 and 4,000 MS-13 members in northern Virginia alone. Compare that to estimates by Immigration and Customs Enforcement—hardly a neutral voice on immigration—of as low as 900 for the entire D.C., Maryland, and Virginia metro area. Comstock’s numbers come from the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force, an entity that would receive funding if her bill passes.
While her numbers are likely exaggerated, Comstock’s district does have one of the largest gang populations in the country. She understands both the need to appear tough on gangs and how to use fear to draw support. Most of Comstock’s constituents will never encounter gang activity. Gangs tend to target residents of their own communities, which typically have large immigrant populations. Strict deportation policies make immigrants reticent to contact police for fear of being deported, or having relatives deported, which leaves them vulnerable, and makes it harder for law enforcement to deal effectively with crime. That, in turn, pushes more young people into gangs as a source of protection.
The tendency to promote hardline policies that only make the gang problem worse is not limited to the U.S. In the early 2000s, governments in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala enacted what were called Mano Dura (firm hand) policies. Young people could now be arrested for having tattoos or dressing like gang members. Mano Dura policies were extremely popular, but violence worsened. Prisons became overcrowded and some were virtually taken over by gangs, providing recruitment and training grounds in what the FBI once called “college for MS-13.” As membership grew and distrust of law enforcement mounted, the average homicide rate in El Salvador rose from six per day in 2003 to seven in 2004.
Despite the official end of Mano Dura policies, police brutality continues. As recently as 2017, the U.S. State Department criticized El Salvador’s prisons for human rights abuses. Nevertheless, during Attorney General Jeff Session’s visit to El Salvador in July, he praised the country’s law enforcement. Sessions is partial to the phrase “transnational criminal organization” when describing groups like MS-13, despite the lack of evidence of any transnational hierarchy. Although imprisoned Salvadoran members have ordered hits on people in the U.S., MS-13 cliques mostly share a name and a set of symbols. Labeling them an international criminal organization accomplishes two things: it makes them sound sophisticated, distracting from their essential juvenility, and it diffuses responsibility, allowing the countries involved to place the onus of repair on the others.
A leaked memo from ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, or the Nationalist Republican Alliance), the conservative party that ruled El Salvador from 1989–2009, confirmed that Mano Dura had been a political tactic. The memo revealed that ARENA took advantage of a poll showing that security had replaced the economy as the country’s primary concern. While ARENA’s economic policies were unpopular, they recognized an opportunity to consolidate power on a security platform. To help justify heavy-handed tactics, El Salvadoran officials have as much as doubled the official count of crime perpetrated by street gangs―not unlike the numbers cited by Comstock.
No American politician has sought to exploit fear of immigrants more than Donald Trump, of course. Like ARENA’s, his economic agenda is dismally unpopular. But the core of his support has always been based on exploiting anti-immigrant sentiment among the Republican base. As Trump continues to pursue a strict immigration agenda, MS-13 has become his newest obsession. In a strategy much like ARENA’s, he garners support by giving crowd-pleasing speeches detailing the brutality of gang violence—for which he partially blames DACA. Perversely, the fact that hardline immigration policies do not make our country safer works to his advantage. If Republicans actually solved gang violence, they would have to find something new to scare people about.