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What’s behind the Trump administration’s crackdown on MS-13?

During his first State of the Union address last month, President Donald Trump emphasized the need for a crackdown on immigration by introducing the parents of two teenage girls from Long Island, New York. The teens were killed in 2016 by members of the gang, MS-13.

In a roundtable discussion with law enforcement officials on Tuesday, Trump again targeted MS-13, calling it “one of the most violent and vicious gangs anywhere in the world,” and said that it “recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders.”

Who are the members of the MS-13 and what is their connection to immigration? What role does the crackdown play in shaping the administration’s immigration policy? And what impact are these efforts having on local efforts to reduce gang violence?

What is MS-13?

Sometimes identifiable by their tattooed bodies and faces, members of the MS-13 gang, also known as Mara Salvatrucha, have a reputation of carrying out murders with machetes and recruiting at-risk youth within Latino communities.

Trump often blames Obama-era immigration policies for the rise in MS-13, but the gang’s origins are believed to date back to Los Angeles in the 1980s, where thousands of Salvadoran immigrants landed after fleeing their country’s civil war, according to Héctor Silva Ávalos, a research fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University. Ávalos said that that young immigrants formed the Mara Salvatrucha gang in search of protection and identity after becoming targets of other existing gangs. When the U.S. government put mass deportation policies in place in the mid-1990s, he added, many of these gang members returned to war-torn countries in Central America, where gang activity only prevailed.

Rampant violence and a stagnant economy in El Salvador triggered a new wave of migration to the U.S. in the late 1990s and early 2000s. As the Central American community migrated to the East Coast in search for job opportunities, so did MS-13 members, appearing in suburbs across New York, Virginia and the D.C. region, Ávalos said.

The government’s response

In his State of the Union address, the president said “many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”

The unaccompanied minors program has given asylum to tens of thousands of Central American children who, in many cases, have crossed the border into the U.S., often without guardians, to escape gang violence in their own countries. The president says that MS-13 has used this program to smuggle its members into the U.S., and has called for tighter immigration laws for unaccompanied minors. But according to the Washington Post, only a small fraction of these minors are affiliated with MS-13. However, these young people, who are often placed with relatives in gang-ridden communities as they wait for their immigration cases to be adjudicated, are especially vulnerable to being recruited once in the U.S., the Post story also points out.

In a visit to Long Island last summer, the president spoke to a group of law enforcement officials, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, and told them “we’re going to support you like you’ve never been supported before” in their effort to eradicate gang violence. According to ICE estimates, arrests of MS-13 members increased by 83 percent in fiscal year 2017 compared to the previous year.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions has also taken aim at MS-13 by linking it to the international drug trade. But Charles Katz, director of the Center for Violence Prevention and Community Safety at Arizona State University, says the gang is not a major player in international drug trafficking. While individual members may engage in small-scale drug dealing, that is not a major money-making operation for the gang itself.

There is little evidence that MS-13 represents a more dangerous national threat now than it did years ago, Katz said. The Justice Department estimates that there are roughly 10,000 MS-13 members in the U.S., a fraction of the total 1.4 million active gang members nationwide and a figure that, according to FBI estimates, has remained steady since 2006.

“The problem is not out of control,” Katz said. “It’s just more on people’s radar.”

On the local level

Police Capt. Ronald Smith said Montgomery County, Maryland, has seen a spike in gang-related homicides since 2015. About half of them, he said, can be linked to MS-13, including the slaying of a man who was allegedly stabbed more than 100 times by at a park. Smith leads the Special Investigations Division for the county’s police department, which is about seven miles from the White House.

In an October ICE operation dubbed “Operation Raging Bull,” six of the 214 MS-13 members arrested throughout the country were from Montgomery County. The majority of these nationwide arrests were for administrative immigration violations as opposed to federal or state criminal charges; gang membership itself is not a crime.

According to Smith, young immigrants are often coerced to join the gang by threats made against their family members.

“It’s causing us to look at what we’re doing … What can we do in a holistic way to address people who are falling prey as victims, but are also being victimized and pressured to join gangs?” he said.

Under Obama, people in the U.S. illegally were not considered a priority for deportation. But that has changed under Trump. An executive order issued by Trump in early 2017 gave ICE officials greater flexibility to arrest undocumented immigrants, casting a wider net for deportation arrests. This has led to a spike in noncriminal deportations under Trump’s tenure.

ICE acting Director Thomas Homan said last year that the recent rise in criminal arrests showed that the agency still prioritizes immigrants with a criminal history. But, as the Associated Press reported, arrests of non-criminals grew at a faster rate in fiscal year 2017, nearly doubling from 2016 numbers.

As ICE removes MS-13 members off the streets, the challenge for Montgomery officials rests in rebuilding trust with victimized community members who are witnessing the stepped-up immigration efforts firsthand. Many of these community members are undocumented and often conflate local police with ICE agents, and they are reluctant to speak to police as witnesses, Smith said.

“Without the cooperation of immigrants who have not committed crimes, we would never be able to find and arrest MS-13 criminals,” said Montgomery County Police Chief, J. Thomas Manger, at a Senate committee hearing last year. “This is a key example of why chiefs in major cities across the nation do not engage in routine, civil immigration enforcement.”

Several cities, including San Francisco, Philadelphia and D.C. have adopted a “sanctuary” status. In practice, this often means local police won’t inform immigration officials about an individual’s immigration status. The administration has claimed that these cities create “loopholes” for undocumented criminals to remain in the country.

Montgomery County does not classify itself a “sanctuary” jurisdiction, but Smith said county police will not recommend people for deportation. More important in combating the issue of MS-13, Smith said, is rebuilding trust within the immigrant community:

“We have to go out on a daily basis and try to win over people’s trust and show people we’re there for them.”