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

January 31, 2018

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)

Nicole Einbinder

Nicole Einbinder, Former Abrams Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships



In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

blog comments powered by Disqus

More Stories

THE PEGASUS PROJECT Live Blog: Major Stories from Partners
A curated and regularly updated list of news articles from our partners in “The Pegasus Project,” a collaborative investigation among 17 journalism outlets around the world.
January 26, 2022
Tampa Lead Factory Faces $518,000 Fine for Environmental Violations
The proposed penalty would be the largest in the history of the Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission.
January 22, 2022
Texas Slow to Adopt Potential Solutions to Keep Rural Hospitals Open
The hospital in Stamford, Texas, closed in 2018, making it one of 24 rural hospitals to close in the state since 2005. This closure left nearly 3,000 residents without immediate access to healthcare.
January 19, 2022
Elizabeth Williamson
January 18, 2022