Why Trump Talked About MS-13 Gang Violence in His State of the Union

January 31, 2018
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by Nicole Einbinder Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships
Anjali Tsui Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

In September 2016, Kayla Cuevas, 16, and her friend, Nisa Mickens, 15, were murdered next to an elementary school in Brentwood, Long Island. The two girls were bludgeoned with baseball bats, authorities said, and hacked to death with machetes. The alleged culprits: members of the notorious MS-13 street gang.

“These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown,” President Trump said during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. Cuevas and Mickens’ parents were invited by the president and watched from the gallery above. Trump said he was calling on Congress to “close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country.” 

Sixteen months since the two teens were killed, President Trump has seized on their murders to press for tougher immigration policies, associating the gang-related violence on Long Island with “unaccompanied alien minors” from Central America — many of whom came to the United States to escape gang violence in their home countries.

The uptick in violence has sparked a crackdown against MS-13 on Long Island, with the local police teaming up with federal law enforcement to take on the gang. Seventeen adult members and associates of MS-13 are facing charges in federal court on Long Island, including four members of the Westside Sailors clique who allegedly killed Cuevas and Mickens. 

Since the spring, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested around 400 suspected gang members as part of the crackdown. However, the effort has also led to the unlawful detention of minors, including 26 teenagers who were held on charges of “gang affiliation,” but released in the past few months following a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU. 

In the upcoming documentary The Gang Crackdown, FRONTLINE goes inside the fight against MS-13, investigating how gruesome killings on Long Island have led many immigrant teens to be accused of gang affiliation. It’s a crackdown that the president says is long overdue. But Sergio Argueta, the founder of a Long Island non-profit that works to prevent gang violence, tells FRONTLINE in the video above that the administration is using that violence to advance a false narrative about illegal immigration. “I knew they were going to use this particular case to fuel that narrative. And that’s exactly what happened.”

The Gang Crackdown premieres on PBS on Feb. 13, 2018. (More)

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