For Cities Where MS-13 Lives, a Fight to Keep Youth From Gang Life

February 15, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

In making the case for tougher immigration policies, President Donald Trump has time and again pointed to the threat from the violent street gang MS-13.

During his State of the Union address in January, the president called on lawmakers to close loopholes that he says the gang has exploited in order to enter the United States from Central America “as unaccompanied alien minors.” And for months now, his administration has led an aggressive crackdown on suspected gang members.

But in communities struggling with MS-13-related violence, gang intervention workers describe a more nuanced problem that can’t be solved through arrests alone. MS-13 will often try to recruit unaccompanied minors, they say, so to fight the gang, these youth need better social services to help them adjust to life in the U.S. Some counties have sought to create prevention programs, but have struggled to meet high demand and to find the right way to provide assistance.

Some also say the administration’s rhetoric has made this work more difficult by making people afraid to seek out services that might help youths be less susceptible to gangs.

“When the gang was born in the west coast, mainly in Los Angeles, what happened is that you had these vulnerable kids who lived in a violent environment, that were aliens in terms of language and in terms of culture,” said Héctor Silva Ávalos, a research fellow at American University who participated in a three-year study of MS-13. “That’s what you’re seeing again with the unaccompanied minors … It’s the ideal prey for the gang.”

MS-13 is a Salvadoran gang that originated on the streets of Los Angeles in the 1980s. Many of those members were deported from the U.S. and sent back to Central America, where the gang grew more dangerous. In recent years, tens of thousands of Central American youths began fleeing to the U.S. on their own, many in an attempt to escape MS-13 violence. They settled in communities like Long Island, New York, Fairfax County, Virginia, and Montgomery County, Maryland. And then MS-13 caught up with many of them.

While experts and county officials say that the number of unaccompanied minors who join MS-13 is small, they concede that these youth make ideal targets for the gang. They are often isolated, with few resources and little connection to their new community. A help line managed by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) connects families to legal service providers, medical care and other support, but only a fraction – about one fifth in fiscal year 2016 – qualify for more personal follow-up, which today includes home visits to help families access community resources.

While the federal government expanded those eligible for services in response to the surge of unaccompanied minors that began in 2014, budget constraints “still left lots of kids without case management follow up,” according to Mark Greenberg, the head of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families during the Obama administration. Between October 2013 and May 2017, nearly 170,000 unaccompanied minors were released from ORR custody to sponsors in the U.S.

In Montgomery County, which has seen an influx of over 3,500 unaccompanied minors over the last four years, MS-13 has taken root. Eleven of the 19 gang-related homicides in the last three years were connected to the gang, according to county police chief Thomas Manger.

The county has invested in cracking down on gang violence. In October, the Montgomery County Council approved almost $850,000 to bolster the police gang unit and create a unit in the state’s attorney’s office to prosecute gang-related cases. But even as police step up arrests, Manger said unaccompanied minors provide the gang with a vulnerable recruiting pool.

“How many of them actually are joining the gang, how many are just trying to avoid joining and trying to stay safe?” he said. “These recruitment efforts can be pretty ruthless. Typically the recruitment effort involves threatening violence to the kid if they don’t join.”

The county has also tried to strengthen its support for these young people. It has allocated about $6 million to gang prevention programs mostly targeted towards youth at high risk of gang involvement.

Luis Cardona, a former gang member and administrator for the county’s Positive Youth Development Initiative, said the county needs to focus more intentionally on fortifying family relationships, particularly between unaccompanied minors and their sponsors. The county is currently planning to partner with Catholic Charities to create a gang prevention program with workshops to strengthen parenting skills.

He added that many families may feel more comfortable approaching a church for services, partly in light of the Trump administration’s stance towards undocumented immigrants.

“It’s not taking anything away from our non-profits and local government efforts,” Cardona said, “but in light of the fear factor and families being scared of seeking resources, we have to look at those ways.”

In nearby Fairfax County, officials have similarly emphasized community outreach. But they’ve dealt with budget challenges. In 2012, Congress eliminated a $3 million annual grant that funded the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, a partnership between regional law enforcement departments that focuses on gang suppression, intervention and prevention. It now operates on a $325,000 budget. (Recently, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors allocated $500,000 to fight gang violence from spending carried over from last year.)

“It’s not working nearly to the level we need it to,” said Jay Lanham, the task force’s director. “We don’t have the programs anymore to get intervention and keep kids from joining the gangs.”

Joe Regotti, an intake supervisor for the Virginia Department of Juvenile Justice and a task force member who focuses on gang intervention and prevention, said that most youth who have completed a gang intervention program in the city of Alexandria, Virginia have stayed out of trouble. What’s missing, he said, are programs that address the more specific needs of unaccompanied minors, which include family reunification and acculturation services.

The task force has helped organize grassroots initiatives, like discussion groups for unaccompanied minors and their families, as well as a home visit program in Alexandria where members knock on doors to connect youth to resources.

While these workshops temporarily bring families together, it hasn’t proved to be a long-term solution, Regotti said. He said he is struggling to find a best practice model to help these youth.

“It’s a splash of the bucket of what needs to happen in terms of the intervention and prevention and the services that these kids need when they get here when they are reunified with their families,” he said. “We’ve seen temporary success but as far as a long-term [solution] I don’t think we’ve found the appropriate service to do that.”

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