WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is traveling to Long Island Friday to discuss efforts to combat the violent MS-13 gang, which his administration has made a key talking point in its push for a hard-line immigration agenda.
Long Island has been particularly affected by the brutal street gang, with recent high-profile murders gripping the community there.
“The President is going to the epicenter of MS-13 threat in Long Island … that gives it enormous power and poignancy,” a senior administration official told reporters ahead of the trip in a briefing conducted with the request of anonymity. The official added that calling out MS-13 specifically is a key piece of combating the gang.
President Trump and his key surrogates — Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — have spoken frequently about the perniciousness of MS-13 and its relationship to illegal immigration.
The gang has strongholds in the US, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The Obama administration’s Treasury Department sanctioned the gang in 2012 as a transnational criminal organization — the first such designation for a street gang. The US law enforcement community has also been fighting the gang for years.
Sessions was in El Salvador this week to discuss the threat from that side of the border, as well, with the Justice Department announcing Thursday that Salvadoran prosecutors charged 113 MS-13 gang members.
While no expert disagrees that the gang is a particularly violent and brutal criminal organization — whose preferred weapon of machetes — there have been concerns about the Trump administration’s use of the organization as a justification of its immigration policies.
Mara Salvatrucha, known as MS-13, actually began in the United States, in Los Angeles in the 1980s amid a flood of Salvadorans fleeing a civil war to the US.
As the gang grew stronger, authorities also deported immigrants in the ’90s back to Central America, which is what first sent the gang to those countries, where it also took hold.
The administration official pointed to migration from Central American as the “principle factor” for MS-13’s growth into the US, though the administration has been continuously unable to give reporters any hard numbers of how many suspected MS-13 members are immigrants or were gang members when they migrated to the US.
A Congressional Research Service analysis of MS-13 found that its ranks were continuously strengthened by deportees from the US returning home, even as members also migrated to the US.
A House homeland security committee subcommittee recently held field hearings in New York on the threat as it relates to unaccompanied minors coming illegally into the US, and witnesses repeatedly told lawmakers that undocumented immigrants and teenagers are especially vulnerable to becoming victims of the gang if communities don’t do enough to support, welcome and protect those individuals.
There were roughly 24,000 MS-13 members in Central America in 2012, according to an analysis by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Today, the Justice Department estimates roughly 30,000 members worldwide and more than 10,000 in the US, a number that has held steady for some years but that the department believes is trending upward.