Fighting MS-13 – and what it means for immigration

President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General superimposed over the face of an MS-13 gang member
President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General superimposed over the face of an MS-13 gang member
ES James, Christopher Halloran, mark reinstein/Shutterstock
The face of a captured MS-13 gang member in El Salvador.

Fighting MS-13 – and what it means for immigration

What will it take to end the violence on Long Island?
March 5, 2018

Nowhere are the issues of immigration and violence more obviously linked than on Long Island.

Members of the MS-13 gang have reportedly murdered at least 26 people in Nassau and Suffolk counties since 2016. Many members of the gang are Salvadoran, while others are Honduran, Guatemalan or Mexican. Some immigrated recently, and others were born in the U.S.

It’s no wonder that President Donald Trump, who has often characterized immigrant groups as violent, has seized upon Long Island as a backdrop to his worldview. In a July speech in Brentwood, he said MS-13 “exploited America’s weak borders and lax immigration enforcement to bring drugs and violence to cities and towns all across America.”

He again tied that MS-13 gang violence to immigration in his January State of the Union address. “Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied, alien minors,” he said.

But Latinos living on Long Island, some of whom entered the U.S. illegally, are also the most likely group to be victims of MS-13’s violence and intimidation, according to Steve Dudley, a fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies who has extensively studied MS-13. There are constant reports of gang members targeting newly arrived immigrants in local high schools hoping to recruit them into the gang – but they haven’t been that successful.

“Even on Long Island, where you hear about them so much, we’re talking about 100 to 130, in terms of actual gang members,” Dudley said. “When you think about it in those terms, you’ve got (more than 100,000) Salvadorans that live on Long Island. It’s a miniscule percentage of the population.”

Dealing with MS-13 is a complicated issue, and there are serious disagreements on the best way to reach the shared goal of keeping Long Islanders safe. Some levels of government and society are working together, while others are diametrically opposed. Here’s what some of the stakeholders are doing.

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President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump
Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock

President Donald Trump

President Donald Trump and his administration are hoping to combat MS-13 through more aggressive enforcement of immigration laws. As he mentioned in his July speech on Long Island, Trump intends to hire 10,000 additional U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but no new agents had been hired as of February. Other planks of Trump’s proposed immigration plan include increased security at the U.S.-Mexico border where many Central American immigrants enter the country, and ending so-called “catch and release” policy – a practice in which certain immigrants apprehended at the border are released while their immigration court case is pending, which can take years because of backlogs. Trump also hopes to make it more difficult for immigrants to sponsor family members who also want to come to the U.S. Congress is currently debating all of these proposals as members work toward a long-delayed immigration deal.

In addition, the Trump administration has revoked Temporary Protected Status from Salvadorans, giving New York’s some 16,000 beneficiaries a choice to either leave the country or apply for a green card.

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U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions
mark reinstein/Shutterstock

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions made a high-profile visit to Long Island in April 2017 to express support for law enforcement fighting the MS-13 gang. He vowed to crack down on illegal immigration and promised to send new federal prosecutors to the Eastern District of New York. Two new assistant U.S. attorneys focusing on gang violence were announced in January. Sessions’ Justice Department has designated MS-13 as a target of a federal gang task forces that could go after gang members by charging them with conspiracy or tax offenses often used to bring down organized crime. The Justice Department also gave the Suffolk County Police Department a $500,000 grant to support initiatives to fight MS-13.

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U.S. Department of Homeland Security logo
Mark Van Scyoc/Shutterstock

Angel Melendez, Special Agent in Charge of ICE Homeland Security Investigations in New York City

Angel Melendez’s team in New York has been aggressive in arresting suspected MS-13 members since the summer of 2017 under Operation Matador – so named for the bullfighter, who “comes in to finish,” Melendez told WNYC. “And that’s our commitment, to finish.”

The secretive operation has netted more than 400 suspected gang members, more than half of whom are believed to belong to MS-13, but the effort has also generated controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union has sued federal agencies, including ICE, claiming young people with no gang ties have been arrested and held without trial.

Another federal agency, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, has worked with ICE to detain certain suspected gang members under the age of 18 in secure facilities – a policy change for an agency that would normally send minors to live with family members.

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Rep. Peter King
Rep. Peter King
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Rep. Pete King

Rep. Pete King has a collegial relationship with Trump and extended the invitation that brought the president to Long Island. King held a July congressional hearing in Central Islip to get testimony from law enforcement officials fighting MS-13, and has stayed involved in federal discussions about how to counter the gang, such as a February meeting at the White House where King asked for more scrutiny of immigrants living on Long Island who were brought into the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo
a katz/Shutterstock

Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has put the New York State Police on the case, sending 25 troopers to Suffolk County, including some to bolster the FBI’s Long Island Gang Task Force. In October, Cuomo directed some of those troopers to work directly with certain high schools, in a move that reportedly surprised some school administrators.

A proposal in Cuomo’s 2018 State of the State address aims to keep young Long Islanders from joining the gang in the first place. The governor plans to direct $11.5 million to after-school programs, vocational training and anti-gang education for at-risk youth.

Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini

Until Jan. 1, Timothy Sini was the Suffolk County Police Department commissioner, trying to balance community engagement and education programs with arrests and coordination with ICE. Now, he is the county’s top prosecutor, and one of his first moves was to create a dedicated gang unit within his office. He hopes certain attorneys will become “highly trained gang specialists” who can prosecute cases that don’t fall under the federal courts’ jurisdiction.

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Geraldine Hart
Geraldine Hart
FBI New York Office

Suffolk County Police Department Commissioner nominee Geraldine Hart

Geraldine Hart was just nominated to replace Sini in February, and won’t take office until at least April, but she’s already engaged in fighting MS-13 as FBI senior supervisory resident agent leading the Long Island Gang Task Force. Hart named the gang as her top priority if she gets the job.

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Walter Barrientos
Walter Barrientos
Make the Road New York

Walter Barrientos, Long Island Coordinator for Make the Road New York

Walter Barrientos has been the most prominent voice among Long Island’s immigrant advocates, expressing concerns that innocent Long Islanders are being swept up in the government’s fervor against MS-13. “(The Trump) administration continues to use the tragedies and the crises that we are experiencing in this community for the sake of advancing their anti-immigrant agenda,” he told NPR in January. Make the Road New York also provides legal counsel to immigrants dealing with ICE and the court system.

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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