WHITE HOUSE - Against the backdrop of the site where 15 members of the notorious MS-13 gang were arrested on homicide charges last week in Suffolk County, on New York’s Long Island, President Donald Trump Friday promised to “liberate our towns” from gangs.
Speaking to a group of law enforcement officers, Trump called on Congress to approve funds for an additional 10,000 Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers in order to “root out the criminal cartels.”
“We cannot accept this violence one day more. Can’t do it,” Trump said. “We’re not going to do it, because of you. You’re not going to allow it to happen and we’re backing you up 100 percent.”
The president recounted a news story he read recently, in which an MS-13 member said the gang likes to kill its victims slowly because they enjoy inflicting pain on people.
“These are animals,” Trump said of the gang members.
Police brutality and mayors
The U.S. president also appeared to support police brutality in his remarks. “Don’t be too nice,” he told the officers. He decried the practice officers have of shielding the heads of handcuffed detainees when placing them into a police vehicle. “You can take your hand away, OK,” Trump said.
The Suffolk Country Police Department said in a statement it has strict regulations about how prisoners are treated.
“Violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously. As a department, we do not and will not tolerate roughing up of prisoners,” the statement said.
The deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union said Trump’s remarks do not adhere to the American ideal that a person is innocent until proven guilty.
“By encouraging police to dole out extra pain at will, the president is urging a kind of lawlessness that already imperils the health and lives of people of color at shameful rates,” Jeffrey Robinson said in a statement.
Trump also used the occasion to attack the country’s mayors.
“I met police, that are great police, that aren’t allowed to do their job because they have a pathetic mayor or a mayor that doesn’t know what’s going on,” he said.
In response, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a statement, saying “The president’s comments today prove how out of touch he is with the realities of life in American cities. Mayors’ number one priority is — and always will be — the safety and protection of their residents. There is no daylight between the mayors of our cities and the uniformed officers who work tirelessly to keep us safe every single day. Any other notion is not only entirely devoid of facts, it is dangerous and counterproductive. ... When the president is ready to stop grandstanding and discuss policy to keep Americans safe, we’re ready to work with him.”
MS-13 started in Los Angeles
La Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13 for short, is a vast organization that has cells in cities with Latino populations across the United States. It is also said to have a significant presence in Mexico and Canada. The group was formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles and also has roots in El Salvador.
Police in New York say the cartel has been responsible for a wave of criminal activity that includes 17 homicides on Long Island since January 2016. Trump spoke Friday at the place where police arrested 15 MS-13 members accused of the brutal ambush murder of four young Latino men in a park in April.
Speaking to reporters aboard Air Force One after Trump spoke Friday, senior White House policy adviser Stephen Miller urged Congress to approve the necessary funds for what would amount to a tripling in the size of the immigration enforcement force from 5,000 to 15,000 officers.
“If Senate Democrats try to block the funding we need to protect our nation from criminals, drug dealers, cartels and terrorists, it will cause an uproar from the American people,” Miller warned. “And they will pay a steep political price.”
In the wake of the homicides and the wave of gang violence in their community, Suffolk County residents are deeply divided about Trump’s intentions and motivations in targeting MS-13. One county resident, Mark Bloom, told VOA federal intervention is overdue.
“The MS-13 gang has been wreaking havoc in Suffolk County, and it’s about time somebody on a national level came in and did something about it, since the local government can’t do anything,” Bloom said.
Other ideas from the community
But others worry that targeting gang members could be a facade for a more extensive crackdown on the undocumented community.
Several who spoke to VOA said many of those arrested and deported since the Trump administration loosened enforcement guidelines this year had no previous criminal charges pending against them. Their only offense was being undocumented.
Angela Ramos, president of the Long Island Women of Vision Coalition, said the arrests and deportations are breaking families apart, depriving households of their primary breadwinners.
“We don’t need family division. We don’t need him (Trump) to tell us that this is a problem of illegals. It’s not that. The problem is, this is a poor community.”
Ramos said cracking down on gangs will not solve the crime problem in immigrant communities.
“There are various solutions that we need to combat this problem. First, we need a prevention program that starts in the school, afterschool programs for the kids, and of course to work with police,” she said.
Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America, in a written statement to VOA Friday, argued the administration’s crackdown was having the opposite of the intended effect, leaving victims of crime afraid to notify authorities.
“It targets vulnerable populations, especially undocumented immigrants,” Beltran said. “In ignoring the facts and nuances about street gangs, the administration risks implementing policies that hinder law enforcement’s ability to effectively address gang violence at home and in Central America.”
Victims of crime
In a briefing for White House reporters Thursday, acting ICE Director Thomas Homan denied that victims of crime were being targeted.
“If there is a victim of crime and they come forward, we’re not looking to arrest a victim of crime,” he said. “We’re looking to arrest the bad guy.”
Homan said most members of immigrant communities support stronger action against violent gangs.
“I believe that these — especially MS-13 — they victimize the very communities in which they live. So if the immigrant community is being victimized, they don’t want them in the community either.”
Homan told reporters ICE has arrested 3,311 gang members this year, a significant increase over past years. He said 100 of those arrests came in New York, most of them people with MS-13 connections.