Sessions’s “Trumped Up” Claims about MS-13

Jeff SessionsToday’s Boston Herald quoted me (with one sentence) regarding the Trump administration’s claims about the threat posed by the MS-13 in the US. In it, I state that,

“Clearly, the MS-13 represents an opportunity for this administration to publicly herald his view of Central American undocumented youth as a menacing threat to the US.”

This sentence was in response to an inquiry from an AP reporter earlier this week. Here is my full response to his questions about the nature of the threat and the Trump/Sessions proposed responses:

1. In terms of the scope of the MS-13 in the US, although I am not a scholar who focuses on US gang activity, I have been loosely following the MS-13 and M18 activity in the US for about a decade and feel comfortable saying that there is no evidence of an “outbreak” or “outburst” of MS-13 activity in the US.  The Justice Department has been citing the same figure of 10,000 MS-13 members nationwide since 2006.  Meanwhile, according to the FBI’s most recent gang assessment report (in 2015), about half of the law enforcement agencies (in a nationally representative sample) reported a slight or significant increase in gang-related activity since 2013 — the rest reported a decrease or no change — but that report does not state how much of this increased activity is attributable to MS-13. Many of the jurisdictions reported gang activity not related to MS-13 (or other Latino gangs). At best what we’re seeing is an uptick in MS-13-related crime in a few localized areas such as Fairfax County, VA and Long Island, NY, and that in a few cases this violence has been committed by and toward the so-called “unaccompanied minors” whose legal status has not yet been finalized. In short, just as in the past, most of the MS-13 violence is gang-on-gang violence or is aimed at recently-arrived immigrant youth, some of whom were fleeing the gang violence in their home country. Everyday voters, even those living in these areas, have little if anything to fear from the MS-13.
2. Nothing resembling what the President has called “blood-stained killing fields” exists in the US and it is ridiculous to say that “one by one we are liberating towns” from the grip of the MS-13 as he stated in his speech on Long Island in July of this year. Clearly, the MS-13 represents an opportunity for this administration to publicly herald his view of Central American undocumented youth as a menacing threat to the US. This is why the President’s first proposed solution to gang violence (according to his July speech) is to add 30,000 ICE officers and to call on Congress to fund the wall at the southern border.,
3. To the extent that there has been an increase in gang activity in some communities, it appears to be at least in part a result of the increasing strength and organizational capacity of the MS-13 in El Salvador, which grew significantly during multiple “iron fist” anti-gang initiatives released by tough-talking administrations in that country (with lots of advising and resources from the US State Department). As I and others have pointed out (see Fig. 1 in document attached), these iron fist policies which relied on neighborhood sweeps resulting in the arrest and incarceration of thousands of Salvadoran youth, coincided with a rapid increase in the gang membership and violent crime rate in that country. Instead of a reduction in gang membership and violence, the aggressive, incarceration-heavy policies appear to have produced a spatial concentration of gang members and leadership that resulted in a stronger, better-organized national structure, which eventually sought to expand it’s presence in certain communities in the US.
4. While there is certainly a place for good policing and investigative work in addressing and reducing gang violence, that work needs to be focused (rather than broad-brush) and locally-informed. National campaigns aren’t likely to do much. Furthermore, immigrant communities need to have the confidence that they can report gang activity without fear of being deported because police rely on this information to build solid cases. And of course, the best way to reduce MS-13-related membership and gang-related violence is to increase the array of realistic pathways to respect and belonging available to immigrant youth. The first MS-13 gang cells were formed largely by young Salvadorans fleeing violence in their home country, but unable to acquire a legal income in Los Angeles. Restricting legal options for earning a living just makes the gang all the more attractive.



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