Amid Crime Drop, Trump Calls to Toughen Immigration Laws

Evelyn Rodriguez, whose daughter, Kayla Cuevas, was murdered by MS-13 on Long Island in 2016, sat next to President Donald Trump during a roundtable about immigration on May 23, 2018 on Long Island, New York.

Evelyn Rodriguez, whose daughter, Kayla Cuevas, was murdered by MS-13 on Long Island in 2016, sat next to President Donald Trump during a roundtable about immigration on May 23, 2018 on Long Island, New York. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

May 24, 2018

President Trump returned to Long Island this week, where he doubled down on his rhetoric against the notorious gang, MS-13, and called for stricter immigration laws.

“I called them animals the other day and was met with rebuke,” he said. “They are not people. These are animals and we have to be very, very tough.”

In a May 23 roundtable discussion that included victims’ families, Trump said “crippling loopholes” have allowed gang members and other criminals to enter the U.S. and he threatened to punish countries that fail to stem the migration from their own borders.

In his remarks, Trump threatened to cut back on aid to countries that fail to stop MS-13 members from entering the U.S. unlawfully. “We’re working on a plan to deduct a lot of the aid,” he said. “It’s going to be changed very radically. It’s already started.”

He also called for ending a practice — dubbed “catch and release” – that allows unauthorized immigrants who have been vetted to wait for an immigration hearing outside the confines of detention. This practice is designed to ensure that vulnerable minors and people facing persecution in their home countries have a chance to bring their case to an immigration judge.

Wednesday’s gathering marked Trump’s second visit to Long Island in one year. Since his election, Trump has zeroed in on violence in the area from MS-13, using the gang’s often vicious tactics to underscore his call to tighten immigration laws across the board.

In The Gang Crackdown, FRONTLINE reported on how Long Island has seen a spate of gruesome murders by MS-13 — a street gang formed by Salvadoran refugees in Los Angeles during the 1980s. In 2016 and 2017, 25 people were killed by gang members across Suffolk and Nassau counties. In the most recent killing in Suffolk County, in April 2017, four young men — Michael Lopez, Justin Llivicura, Jefferson Villalobos and Jorge Tigre — were murdered with machetes and knives by alleged MS-13 members. Seven out of 13 alleged MS-13 members who were charged with murder in March arrived in the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.

But at the roundtable with the president yesterday, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said “there has not been an MS-13 murder in Suffolk County since April 2017.” A spokesperson from the police department later told FRONTLINE that violent crime in Suffolk County has dropped by 23 percent over the past year.

The Gang Crackdown reported on how federal and local law enforcement agents launched a coordinated crackdown on immigrant teens in the aftermath of the spate of killings, which they called “Operation Matador.” The federal immigration sweep began in May 2017 as the wave of MS-13 violence on Long Island was waning. More than 500 alleged gang members and associates have been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of the ongoing roundup in the New York metropolitan area. Around 100 of those arrested came to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors.

As the operation continues on Long Island and across the country, Tom Homan, ICE’s acting director, said Wednesday that the number of MS-13 related arrests have doubled under Trump.

But in its investigation, FRONTLINE found that some unaccompanied minors who arrived in the U.S. seeking asylum were accused of being gang members without ample evidence and unlawfully detained. FRONTLINE also uncovered how school resource officers — police stationed in public schools — shared information about students with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Some of those students ended up being sent to high-security detention centers in Virginia and California.

FRONTLINE reviewed about a dozen cases where minors arrested by ICE due to incidents that occurred at school. Some were labelled as gang members or associates after writing the number “503,” the area code of El Salvador, in a notebook at school; wearing black Nike Cortez sneakers; a Brooklyn Nets hat; and being seen affiliating with “known MS-13 gang members,” according to ICE memos and legal documents.

Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California filed a class-action lawsuit against the Trump administration challenging these tactics on behalf of 35 unaccompanied minors who had been arrested by immigration authorities. The suit alleged that the federal government violated their due process rights. Since then, 30 of the youths have been released due to insufficient evidence.

Additionally, a federal judge ruled that all unaccompanied minors under 18 who are arrested by ICE for alleged gang activity must now receive a hearing within seven days.

Dozens of community members and immigration advocates gathered outside to protest Trump’s visit. They criticized Trump for using MS-13 to paint all immigrants in a negative light. “The community is stunned, because we know what the president came to do today is only going to make things worse,” said Walter Barrientos, the Long Island organizing director with Make The Road New York.

Barrientos, who works with immigrant youth, says many teens were falsely accused of being gang members and swept up by ICE in the aftermath of Trump’s visit to Long Island last year. He fears that the President’s rhetoric will continue to embolden law enforcement.

Earlier this week, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said schools can decide whether to report undocumented students to federal immigration authorities. “I think that’s a school decision, it’s a local community decision,” DeVos said during her testimony before the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

Civil rights groups and Democrats slammed DeVos’ recommendations as “unconstitutional” and said it violates a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that bans communities from preventing undocumented students from accessing a free public education.

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