The State of Misconception

The majority of the 80 minute State of the Union speech on Tuesday repeated familiar refrains and borderline fraternity-esc fluffing. Out of this, two sections stood out as laden with deep misconceptions that could pose a danger to future policy decisions. The first of these was the section on immigration, where Trump used fears of the gang known as MS-13 to lay out his four-point immigration plan.

Among the many things that got under my skin in this section, the blanket dis-concern with sufficiently and accurately understanding the topic before one takes such a passionate and decided position was paramount. The misconceptions here are so blatant and prolific that it seems unlikely the Trump administration has done any research on the topic at all. The alternative, of course, is that this is all political rhetoric. However, the consequences of this policy are relatively clear when looking at the history of this topic – so how can the GOP really stand behind such policy proposals?

The Uniformed State of the Presidency

Fromhow the visa process worksto what it is that ICE actually does, the immigration section of the State of the Union revealed the frightening ignorance of the President of the United States on an issue he has spent no shortage of time discussing. Trump opened his immigration section with a barrage of rhetoric and anecdotes about the gang known as MS-13. After using two clearly devastated families as political pawns, an unfortunate tradition in SOTU speeches, Trump goes on to implicate MS-13 (seemingly) as the primary concern for urgently controlling the borders of the U.S.

(Last year, it was a jobs issue – but with record low unemployment levels, even Stephen Miller knows that’s a hard sell, so the issue was relegated to the backseat.)

Let’s take a look at a piece of the text from the speech:

For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They have allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.

Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens. Their two teenage daughters Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens were close friends on Long Island. But in September 2016, on the eve of Nisas 16th Birthday, neither of them came home. These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown. Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisas murders. Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors - and wound up in Kayla and Nisas high school. …

Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country. We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.

From this speech, one would think that MS-13 is “pouring” across U.S. borders, that they make up the majority of “unaccompanied minors” from Central America and that they either make up the majority of gang violence in the U.S. or they are suddenly becoming increasingly powerful.

None of these things are true.

Let’s break this down:

MS-13 is not pouring across U.S. borders.

M.S.-13 originated in Los Angeles, not Central America. The strength and violence of the gang flared in Central America after the Clinton administration introduced a policy of mass deportation. They are not pouring across U.S. borders – they moved East from California. M.S.-13 is a product of continuing U.S. policy focusing on mass incarceration and mass deportations.

MS-13 is a brutal street gang that has caused incredible violence in what is known as the Northern Triangle – Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Source: The Wilson Center 2015

The strength of the gang presence in these countries, of which MS-13 is one, has placed communities in the middle of violent competition for territory. Economic control is pursued through extortion, kidnapping and the illegal drug market. Threats and sexual assault are used as tools of neighborhood control and inter-gang violence is commonplace. A number of environmental conditions, from corrupt governance to weak family structures, have created an atmosphere where children are often left to fend for themselves, sometimes choosing (or being coerced into) the relative “safety” of gang affiliation. The result has been record numbers of violent crime. Honduras and El Salvador hold thethird and fourth highest homicide rates in the world, respectively, after only Venezuela and Belize.

In 2015,The Wilson Centerconducted extensive research into the causes of this violence and the impact of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), US policy toward the region at the time. (PDFIPanel Webcast) The following is taken from the executive summary of their final report:

U.S. policy and practice are also a major contributing factor to the violence. U.S. consumption of illegal drugs remains among the highest in the world, and U.S. and Mexican efforts to interdict drug trafficking in the Caribbean and Mexico has contributed to the trades relocation to Central America. Furthermore, the policy of deporting large numbers of young Central Americans in the 1990s and 2000s, many of them already gang members in the United States, helped transfer the problem of violent street gangs from the United States to Central Americas northern triangle. El Salvador now has the largest number of gang members in Central America followed close behind by Honduras and Guatemala. Finally, the trafficking of firearms, especially from the United States, has also contributed to the lethality and morbidity of crime. Efforts to slow firearms trafficking from the United States have encountered many domestic and political barriers and continue largely unchecked. (TWC 2015p.2)

The Justice Department’s recent crackdown on drug users and a consistent resistance to adopting common sense gun control, have landed the Trump administration in the position of continuing these roles in Central America.

Let’s keep the focus on immigration. The deportation policy mentioned in this paragraph was initiated by the Clinton administration with bipartisan support and has been continued by every presidential administration since.

In the 1980s, the U.S. waswrapped up withthe military dictatorship of Jos矇 Napoleon Duarte when a civil war broke out with the Farabundo Mart穩 National Liberation Front (FMLN), Marxist-Leninist guerrillas group. The conflict took the lives of some 75,000 people and forced many more to flee the country. Many of these refugees settled in Los Angeles.

There, groups of teenagers formed what was originally known asMSS – Mara Salvatrucha Stoners. MSS was into smoking weed and listening to heavy metal music. Unfortunately, much of Los Angeles was already controlled by black and Mexican gangs and violent crime was on the rise. The friction between MSS and these local units encouraged the gang-like behavior. At the same time, the law enforcement structures in the city implemented “Operation Hammer” – a gang crackdown that first took down the local groups, allowing the El Salvadorian gang to gain strength, then passed back through to incarcerate large numbers of El Salvadorian youth. This time in the California prison system allowed the gang’s numbers to grow and prodded these groups into something increasingly less benign.

The Clinton administration then decided to clear out the overwhelmed prisons by deporting undocumented gang members back to El Salvador.

El Salvador was just coming out of its civil war which had left the country with little in the way of rule of law whenmore than 20,000criminals arrived within one four year period (CNN). The gangs brought with them lessons they had learned from the gangs of Los Angeles, including how to control territory and how to earn money through extortion. MS-13’s rival, Barrio 18, another U.S.-born gang, was also deported in droves from L.A. This time the two competed for control and resources in a country that had no experience in dealing with such situations.

The El Salvadorian government modeled their response after the U.S. and began arresting young gang members in droves. The result (again) was a strengthening of MS-13 in the prison system. Overcrowding and corrupt judicial institutions resulted in nearly all of those arrested during this period (more than 30,000) to eventually be released without charges.

In the years that followed, gangs, including a much stronger MS-13, essentially took over most of El Salvador, much of Honduras, and parts of Guatemala, operating through mafia-esc style control of services.

TWC p255.PNG
Source: The Wilson Center 2015

MS-13 and other gangs infiltrated the law enforcement networks of these countries, assuring that when they found themselves in lax prisons where they could to pal around with their fellow gang members, playing pool and enjoying a freedom of movement that ordinary citizens no longer had in much of the country. These prisons are overflowing, with El Salvador hosting themost overwhelmed prison system in the world. Most of the time, however, public trust in law enforcement is so low that crimes go unreported. When they are reported, these countries have extraordinary impunity rates for criminal activity,95% or higheras of 2015.

It is the violence of these gangs that drove a wave of refugees into the U.S. during the spring and summer of 2014 – parents, desperate to save their children, sent them on a harrowing journey North, hoping for compassion. In June and July of 2014,10,000 children arrived each month, two-thirds of whom were from this Northern Triangle. These children are among those often referred to as “unaccompanied minors” in immigration debates. They are unaccompanied and they are minors – but the proper legal term is a refugee. These children and their families saw the United States as the beacon of hope that it was once considered to be for much of the world.

It is worth noting that the influx of refugees has dramatically slowed – not because the situation in these countries has been rectified but because the U.S. is no longer viewed as such a place.

The “unaccompanied minors” who poured across U.S. borders in 2014 and 2015 were refugees fleeing the persecution of MS-13, a gang started by former refugees deported in mass from California in the 1980s.

A recentSenate Judiciary Hearingheard testimony from Chief Carla Provost of Customs and Border Protection. Provost said that of the 250,000 unaccompanied minors apprehended since 2011,only 56 were suspected or confirmedof being affiliated with MS-13.


MS-13 does not make up the majority of Central American immigrants.

MS-13 members in the United States migrated East from California, as opposed to North across the US-Mexico border. The gangformed strongholds in Virginia, Maryland, D.C. and New York, where new gang members are recruited almost exclusively from immigrant communities.

If indeed there is a connectionto immigration by unaccompanied minors, all that may have changed was MS-13 found more vulnerable youth to prey upon in a country where the leadership wants to hold them up not as refugees, but as potential criminals.

According to Jos矇 Miguel Cruz, a Central American gang-research specialist at Florida International University, MS-13 is still a youth gang, made up of 15-17-year-old kids. Many of whom,Cruz told the Atlantic in 2017, may feel threatened or believe that the gang is their only peer group in the community.

I’m not totally sure what “glaring loopholes” Trump and Miller are referring to in there speech – but the majority of Central American children who are in the US legally are either refugees fleeing extraordinary violence or they attained visas through the family-based immigration process.

The Obama administration (arguably) violated international law and the1980 U.S. Refugee Actby detaining and deporting a significant number of these migrants, mostly children, back to their violent home countries. Those who remain wereextensively vetted. (The Trump administrationcanceledthe Central American Minors programlate last year.) Calling the Refugee Convention a ‘glaring loophole’ is not something I would put past Trump or Miller but given the U.S. only selectively abides by the treaty in the first place, I think this would be a tough case to make.

Family-based immigration, which the administration has politically reclassified as “chain migration,” was used by some of the refugees from Central America who already had family in the U.S. I discuss in anearlier posthow difficult these visas actually are to get, how long the process takes, and touched a bit on the beautiful people they have helped bring to our country. Given this process is very long and requires dependable institutions in the recipients home country, it is unlikely a significant number of Central Americans have entered the U.S. this way.

I do want to point out that these familial visas already include provisions which cause them to act in a distinctly opposite fashion of what the phrase “chain migration” suggests. Annual numerical limits are set, with more than3.9 millionpeople waiting in line as of November 1st, 2017. The New York Times put together aworthwhile pieceoutlining the other misconceptions Trump seems to have regarding the family-based migration process.

As for migration of MS-13 members into the U.S. illegally, the Justice and Homeland Security departments have beenunableto provide any estimates of these numbers. What has been established, however, by theFBIandlocal enforcement divisions, is that the gang actively recruits new members from immigrant communities. The precariousness of undocumented individuals, particularly in the current climate, leaves them disproportionately vulnerable to extortion.

The data that is available for MS-13 members are largely based on arrests.The division of ICE which focuses on gangs deported 114,434 undocumented individuals in 2016. Of these, only 429 (just under 4%) were members of MS-13.These deportations are probably indicative of an undocumented status, however, criminal activity can lead to a revocation of legal residency as well.

MS-13 is not responsible for the majority of gang violence in the U.S. and their relative size has actually decreased in recent years.

M.S.-13 makes up6,000of the estimated 1.4 million gang members operating inside the U.S – just 0.4%. There is no evidence that their crime rates are disproportionately higher than other gangs operating inside the U.S. – although there is evidence of the contrary.

Of the approximately [1,300 gang-related arrests in the U.S. in 2016]((, roughly 8% were associated with MS-13. There is no clear upward or downward trend in MS-13 arrests, instead, the numbers have consistently fluctuated. Total MS-13 arrests are lower than those of other large gangs, such as the Bloods and Sure簽os. MS-13 is unique in its designation as a transnational criminal organization, an unprecedented move by the Obama administration in 2012. However, there aremore than 96 gangsin the U.S. involved in cross-border crimes, of which MS-13 does not stand out.

FBI 2015 p 28.PNG
Source: FBI 2015

In fact, anthropologist Jorja Leap, a professor at UCLA who has spent a decade studying the gang, argues in her book‘Jumped In’that their power has declined in recent years.

J. Thomas Manger, the chief of police for Montgomery County, differentiates the killings of MS-13 in Montgomery County from those in other gangs in the area. He testified in a recent Senate committee hearing that the task force has found that whereas the murders of other gangs are motivated by illegal drug transactions, MS-13’s murders seemed to be primarily related to perceived or actual rival gang affiliations of the victims.

These circumstances sound eerily similar to the circumstances of the period in U.S. history that first gave birth to MS-13 in the first place. Except today’s crime rates are atall-time lows. So perhaps it is the perfect time to rethink approaching the situation with mass incarceration and deportation.

Policies to avert gang establishment and recruitment look something more like funding after-school programs in low-income areas, addressing food deserts, and assuring accessibility to family planning services. The Trump administration has, in some cases balked, and in other cases actively worked to deter each of these programs. Investments and trust in local law enforcement, as opposed to federal threats, has also been requested by local precinct leaders.

We already know where the policies the Trump administration is proposing will lead.


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