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.



Watching the US Election from Guatemala

Since I arrived with my family in Guatemala in August, I found myself, on more than one occasion, answering one version or another of the question, “And what will you do if the US elects Donald Trump?” My answer to this question was always the same: “Don’t worry. Donald Trump is not going to win the election.” I often suspected that the Guatemalans who asked me these questions were either wanting to give me a hard time in the good-natured way of “chapin” humor or simply wanting me to own up to some of the ugliness of my country’s own electorate. Fair enough. My friends and in-laws were in their rights when asking such a question, but I still thought to myself, “I don’t think they understand how far off such a possibility truly is.” How simple and utterly naive of me.

As we would learn on Tuesday night, I couldn’t have been more wrong. You might even say that my Guatemalan friends understood the American electorate and the so-called “whitelash” that fueled Trump’s upset, better than I did. Their repeated experiences with electoral dismay and the fear and racial distrust that can drive it, have taught them to be ready for anything. On the night of the election, our family happened to have a friend from Colombia visiting us for dinner. Her experience (and utter dismay and disappointment) with the rejection of the peace accords by a narrow margin in the popular vote was still fresh in her mind and she reminded us — even as we watched aghast as the results continued to pour in — that the polls conducted prior to an election regarding highly “sensitive” issues about race and politics can give a distorted view of things. Just as many Colombians were, apparently, hiding their disdain for the peace accords by answering survey-takers by saying they would vote “Yes” when in fact they were going to vote against the accords, so it seems very possible that at least a portion of white US voters were not willing to own up to being Trump supporters when speaking to survey administrators who might likely disprove of their views.

Fortunately for me, my Guatemalan friends have been gracious enough not to confront me about the elections and I suppose I have avoided bringing up the topic in most cases. It is, I must say, a shock and a disappointment to me that a candidate whose candidacy was clearly kickstarted by 1) a lie (birtherism), and 2) hate speech (Mexico is sending us its rapists and criminals) and who continued to traffic in obviously baseless conspiracy theories (the Russians hacked Hillary’s e-mail account), is rewarded by the electorate with the presidency. At the same time, it is also worth remembering that even if Hillary had squeaked out a win, we would still be citizens of a country in which a very significant portion of the population is angry with immigrants and Muslims. It is even more unsettling to realize that this population will now have a leader in the Oval Office, but either way, we would still have a LOT of work to do to try to counteract and calm such fear and anger in our own communities. At least now, we cannot deny that such hatred and distrust is alive and well and that we must learn to be MUCH better at counteracting it.

In the meantime, I have been trying to tell myself that my work must continue. (Of course it must.) On Wednesday,the day after the election, I finished writing an expert affidavit on behalf of a young Honduran who is seeking asylum protection from deportation due to a credible threat of gang violence aimed at her should she be deported. (Two of her relatives have already been killed.) Sending the affidavit was, I hope, my own little way of pushing back against “Wall-ism” and the scapegoating of undocumented (and Muslim) immigrants that proved so popular in the Trump campaign. Perhaps there is still time for us a nation to learn hospitality and to find the joy in learning to know our newest neighbors. Perhaps.

Jimmy Morales: “Transition” or Continuity?

Jimmy Morales

Anita Isaacs, Professor of Political Science at Haverford, has written an excellent NYT op-ed (published 11/6/15) about the shaky electoral transition currently underway in Guatemala. She does a great job navigating the the tension between optimism (due to the success of the grassroots movement to oust corrupt politicians including the President and Vice President) and realism (due to the unwillingness of the Guatemalan Congress to pass substantial electoral and campaign finance reforms). Without systemic change, Guatemala is not really any better off with its newly-elected president in Jimmy Morales.

About Jimmy Morales: Morales is indeed a “political outsider.” He is also not well-connected among the Guatemalan elites. His roots are in the lower-middle class, as evidenced by his K-12 education at the Colegio America Latina, one of the older and more traditional evangelical schools that has attracted many lower-middle and working class Protestant families since its founding in the 1950s. We know little about his political philosophy. Some of his public statements seem to suggest a kind of political conservatism — or perhaps naivete — which is disconcerting but would fit well with the alliances he has made with some of the old guard from the army. Marcelo Colussi, columnist for Plaza Pública put it rather bluntly when describing who “won” the election: Ganó la anti-politica. We can only hope that the momentum behind the plaza protests of this year has not spent itself.