For the 2018 State of the Union, President Donald Trump brought as his guests the parents of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas. Nisa and Kayla were two young girls from Long Island, who were chased down and brutally murdered by members of MS-13 gang in September 2016. During his address, Trump made reference to MS-13 and their operations in the US, citing his immigration policies as a key tool in defeating them. In a White House press release in May titled “What You Need to Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13”New York communities were presented as suffering “tremendously from the abhorrent violence of MS-13”. On the same week of the publication of that Press Release, Trump stated at a roundtable discussion in Bethpage, Nassau County, Long Island that MS-13 gang members “are not people, they’re animals”.
In recent months the gang has captured the imagination of the Trump administration, with their well-documented brutal murders becoming synonymous with Barrack Obama’s perceived “open doors” immigration policy. The Trump administration is utilizing the constructed spectre of MS-13 to justify increasingly punitive immigration policies – including the revoking of measures designed to protect vulnerable immigrants and the expansion of institutions to find and deport undocumented migrants. These effects will be devasting upon New York state’s Salvadoran community, who are finding themselves caught up in the gamesmanship of the Trump administration.
Who are MS-13?
MS-13 is a transnational street gang whose roots date back to the early nineties in Los Angeles. The El Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s pitted left-wing revolutionaries against a US backed Junta which had ruled the country for decades.More than 75,000 Salvadorans were massacred in the fighting, most of them victims of the military and its death squads – armed and trained by Washington, forcing a mass aexodus from the country. Between 1985 and 1990, 334,000 Salvadorans reported entering the United States– many of them settling in LA. Originally a group of stoners and rockers,turned more violent due to targeting from other gangs, the increasing arrival of brutalized compatriots from central America, and racist mistreatment by the LAPD and broader criminal justice system. By 1996, the Salvadoran Civil War had come to an end, and with the passage of the Illegal Immigration and Immigrant Responsibility Act, large numbers of MS-13 members were deported back to El Salvador. These gang members were dumped in special prisons, which although reduced gang confrontations in the carceral system, allowed the group to consolidate a plan of action. By the early 2000’s the gang had managed to extend its franchise to the East Coast, and into Long Island, an area with a large Salvadoran community.
Salvadorans in Long Island
Salvadoran immigration to Long Island predates the civil war by several decades. Like with LA, it was the civil war which prompted large numbers seeking refuge in quiet towns and villages across the island. In 2001, an earthquake struck El Salvador, forcing many citizens to seek Temporary Protected Status- New York, is home to 16,200 Salvadoran TPS beneficiaries.According to statistics, over 47,000 Salvadorans living in Nassau County and a further 52,000+ in Suffolk. The concentration of Salvadorans in Long Island has promoted the consulate to open a branch in Brentwood, the first and currently only of its kind in the region.
The construction of a moral panic
Trump has utilized the racialized imagery of violent Central American youths, along with his promise to be tough on crime in order to construct a moral panic around Latino street gangs, with a particular focus on MS-13. This moral panic is in turn being converted into increasingly draconian immigration positions. With regards to undocumented migrants and deportation, Trump has specifically focussed on the argument that there are “glaring loopholes”in current asylum law, which allow illegal entry. In addition to this he has argued that gang members are entering the US as unaccompanied minors. The reality is either far more complex, or the opposite. For example, according to a June 2017 testimony by U.S. Border Patrol Acting Chief,only 159 unaccompanied alien children were confirmed or suspect of having gang affiliations, 56 of whom were suspected or confirmed of having MS-13 ties. Indeed MS-13 affiliated children accounts for less than 0.12 of apprehended unaccompanied minors between 2012 – 2017. Moreover, the claim that there are legal loopholes presents the US’s rather strict asylum laws as loose, when in reality it is difficult for even victims of gang violence to attain asylum in the US, let alone known gang associates.
Despite the paucity of these arguments, the Trump administration has moved to remove Temporary Protected Status visas, as well as increase the powers for immigration enforcement agencies to seize and deport undocumented migrants – a move that will build on the precarious status of Long Islands Salvadoran community.
The impact on Long Island
In January, President Trump announced he would end TPS for Salvadorans and others residing in the US under the program, arguing that the living conditions caused by the 2001 earthquake no longer exist. TPS recipients have been given 18 months to leave. Dan Stein, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a think tank classified as a Hate Group by the Southern Poverty Law Group, has applauded the policy noting that TPS “was never intended to be used as a tool to sidestep the legal immigration process”. Salvadorans comprise the largest group protected by the program, numbering around 260,000 – with around 14,700 on Long Island. The effect of this removal will have far reaching economic effects for the economy of Long Island. According to analysis collated by the Suffolk Country Department of Economic Development and Planning, Long Island would lose a projected $800 million in household spending, the loss of 13,500 jobs and the $1.4 billion drop in economic output. The removal of parents of US citizens is likely to force thousands of young children into social care, and increase their potential exposure to MS-13 gangs. Another policy Trump is pursuing to combat MS-13 is the increased deployment of secure communities program which promotes ICE detainer requests by local police departments. Despite the fact they have not engaged in the 287(g) agreement with ICE, data indicates that Long Island’s law enforcement agencies are engaging with ICE to such a degree, that they may be violating the Fourth Amendment, as they are detaining immigrants without cause or legal authority. It is not only the violation of the US Constitution that is at risk through the increased engagement with ICE – law enforcement can alienate migrant communities and undermine their ability to cooperate, as reporting crimes may come with the risk of deportation. MS-13 may be presented as a street gang par excellence, but it operates best within communities under a blanket of silence. If Long Island law enforcement are interested in removing the scourge of MS-13 violence from their counties, then protections to those who suffer from it most acutely must be protected. Enhancing protections for vulnerable Salvadorans and other migrants will isolate MS-13 and greatly diminish their appeal. Front and center of such a program must be the removal of the spectre of deportation, which creates fear and mistrust within migrant communities.