Post 13: A Qualified Defense of a Beleaguered White House: President Trump’s Promising Anti-Gang Strategy

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President Donald Trump. (Jim Lo Scalzo, AFP/Getty Images).

“They (the Trump administration) are in a downward spiral right now.”

  • United States Senator Bob Corker, (R) Tennessee

The prevailing opinion on the state of the Trump administration is appropriately summed up by Senator Corker. Inundated in scandal and desperately seeking focus, the White House is struggling to accomplish its goals, and deliver on promises made to the American people.

In our hyper-partisan world, the process of identifying President Trump’s accomplishments likely turns on party affiliation. However, this article offers an argument for the viability of the administration’s anti-gang strategy, but questions the basis for the underlying policy.

Organized crime in the United States has a history dating back to the founding, when violent gangs roamed the streets of Boston during the Revolution. [1] Gang activity was also prevalent during the Industrial Revolution and in the 1920s, only to stall during the Great Depression and reemerge in the 1950s. [2] Today, some 33,000 violent street gangs, motorcycle gangs, and prison gangs with about 1.4 million members are criminally active in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. [3]

In response, President Trump, both during his campaign and as president, has made federal anti-gang enforcement a priority for his administration. In particular, he has focused on the Salvadoran gang La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13.

MS-13 is one of the largest criminal organizations in the country, with more than 6,000 members in at least 46 states and more than 30,000 international members. [4] Started by Salvadoran immigrants fleeing civil war in the 1980s, MS-13 is considered by the US government to be a “transnational criminal organization” who perpetrates violence to intimidate rival gangs, using every weapon from firearms to machetes. [5]

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MS-13 members, pictured here, are known for their brutal crimes against those who challenge their territory. (unitedgangs.com).

Generally more concerned with controlling territory than conducting illicit business, [6] MS-13 members have committed some exceptionally brutal crimes. For example, this year in New York more than a dozen alleged MS-13 members were indicted in seven killings, including two high school students who were beaten to death with bats and a machete. [7] “They’re just extremely violent,” said University of Houston Sociology professor Luis Salinas. “They’re so violent that their activities get a lot of attention. Even drug cartels hire them as their muscle.” [8]

In response, President Trump has taken swift action against MS-13. In response to his Executive Order instructing the Attorney General to form an Anti-Gang task force, [9] on May 11th Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced it had conducted the largest anti-gang operation in the agency’s history, arresting almost 1400 people as a part of a six-week initiative. [10] The operation also including the arrest of dozens of MS-13 members in a coordinated pre-dawn raid in Los Angeles. [11]

With these actions, President Trump has kept his campaign promise to crack down on violent street gangs, particularly MS-13, as a part of his larger law enforcement and immigration strategy.

In fact, the administration’s anti-gang strategy is part of a larger counter-illegal immigration policy. “We cannot continue with this transporting across our border, illegal immigrants who have not been properly vetted and actually are part of criminal organizations,” US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently said. [12] Sessions also blamed the Obama administration’s immigration policies for MS-13 activity in the US. [13]

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US Attorney General Jeff Sessions was directed by President Trump’s Executive Order to combat violent street gangs like MS-13. (Mandel Ngan, AFP/Getty Images).

However, there are several issues with conflating anti-gang operations against MS-13 and national immigration policy. First, while it originated in El Salvador, MS-13 has been established in the United States since the 1980s. [14] So, while some members likely travel illegally to the US, many have been in the country for years.

Additionally, it is unknown how many of the 10,000 MS-13 members in the US are illegal. [15] Even if a majority of those members are undocumented, they would still constitute a small fraction of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the US, creating a tenuous link between MS-13 organized crime and undocumented immigration.

Lastly, the federal government might be undermining its anti-gang policy by equating MS-13 members with undocumented immigrants. [16] MS-13 often pressures vulnerable undocumented people to join their gang through extortion or manipulation. [17] However, by pushing aggressive anti-immigration policy, the Trump administration has created a relationship of fear between illegal immigrants and federal police. [18] As a result, those being targeted for membership by MS-13 are not likely to appeal to the authorities for help, and in turn succumb to the demands of the gang.

That said, the Trump administration’s anti-gang operations are prudent actions and should be pursued as part of a larger law-enforcement agenda. However, in this case the administration’s anti-gang strategy should not be conflated with its immigration policy. Instead, the focus of the administration’s MS-13 operations, and future anti-gang policy, should be keeping all people living in the US safe from criminal organizations, including those who are here illegally and need that protection the most.

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica. (2017). Gangs. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/gang-crime.

[2] Id.

[3] Federal Bureau of Investigation. (2017). What We Investigate: Gangs. Retrieved from https://www.fbi.gov/investigate/violent-crime/gangs.

[4] Lynch, J., Boyette, C., Simon, D. (2017). What is MS-13? The Transnational Street-Gang on the FBI’s Radar. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/03/03/us/ms-13-gang-explained-street-gang-international/.

[5] Id.

[6] Blitzer, J. (2017). The Gang MS-13 is a Real Problem, But Does Trump Have Any Real Answers. The New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-gang-ms-13-is-a-real-problem-but-does-trump-have-any-answers.

[7] Lynch, J., Boyette, C., Simon, D. (2017).

[8] Id.

[9] The White House. (2017). President Trump Signs Pro-Law Enforcement and Anti-Crime Executive Orders. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2017/02/09/president-trump-signs-pro-law-enforcement-and-anti-crime-executive-orders.

[10] Sachetti, M. (2017). ICE Announces Largest Anti-Gang Crackdown in Agency History. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/ice-announces-largest-anti-gang-crackdown-in-agency-history/2017/05/11/ad1367bc-3651-11e7-b373-418f6849a004_story.html?utm_term=.685525c7b2e6.

[11] Kopan, Tal. (2017). ICE Announces Major Anti-Gang Operation, Mostly US Citizens Arrested. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/05/11/politics/ice-gang-arrests-operation/.

[12] Kopan, Tal. (2017). MS-13 is Trump’s Public Enemy No. 1, But Should it Be?. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2017/04/28/politics/ms13-explained-immigration-sessions/.

[13] Id.

[14] Lynch, J., Boyette, C., Simon, D. (2017).

[15] Kopan, Tal. (2017). MS-13 is Trump’s Public Enemy No. 1, But Should it Be?.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.


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