Eduardo Munoz / Reuters

President Donald Trump has made rejection of MS-13, a violent, transnational gang, the centerpiece of his immigration policy. “We have laws that are laughed at on immigration. So when the MS-13 comes in, when the other gang members come into our country, I refer to them as animals,” he said in May. At an event with the president, Robert Mickens, the father of a teenage girl murdered by MS-13 members, urged the government to harden its borders in response. “If you’re going to come here with acts of violence, you can stay in your own country with that, because we don’t need it here anymore,” said Mickens.

Translating Trump’s rhetoric into policy requires the government to identify gang members at the border and stop them before they can commit crimes. But, as Abdallah Fayyad reports in today’s issue of The Masthead, there’s good reason to question its ability to do so. And Karen Yuan answers a question from a member: Just how different are Trump’s policies on immigrants and gangs from his predecessors’?


Identifying Gang Members Isn’t Easy, on Either Side of the Border

By Abdallah Fayyad

“We’re taking them out by the thousands,” President Donald Trump said of MS-13 gang members during a visit to review prototypes of the border wall in San Diego, California. But his comments, particularly his quantifying of gang-affiliated deportees, raised some eyebrows among experts in the field. “I know of no specific source of which [the Trump administration] is deriving this data,” said Jorja Leap, a professor at UCLA who spent a decade studying MS-13. “But I do know that the process of gang identification is inexact, subject to error, and problematic in more ways than I can begin to describe.”

Estimates of gang affiliates in the United States are based on state-by-state databases and federal agencies. There’s no uniform methodology; each agency chalks up numbers based on its own criteria. That means Immigrations and Customs Enforcement might identify an individual as a member of MS-13, while California authorities would not. The lack of uniform and rigorous standards has also led law enforcement agencies to misidentify otherwise innocent people as gang members. Last year, ICE agents claimed that Daniel Ramirez Medina, an undocumented immigrant, was affiliated with a gang because of a tattoo on his forearm; the tattoo was used as evidence in an effort to deport him until a federal judge ruled that the evidence was unsubstantiated. That case, and others like it, suggests the federal government has inflated its numbers on gang members in the U.S.

“I do not think the efforts of ICE or any law enforcement agency are bent toward criteria,” Leap said. “I think they are bent toward guilty until proven innocent and ‘lets keep them out of the country at all costs.’” In 2017, according to ICE, arrests of MS-13 members surged, but criminal-justice advocates argue that a significant portion of those arrests were likely to be unaffiliated with the gang. In many cases, a person will be classified as a gang member because they meet two or three criteria, which include tattoos, place of origin, or businesses frequented. Leap thinks that the criteria ICE has in place, to the degree the public is aware, is largely ineffective.

Because of the murky gang data that agencies like ICE use, the Trump administration’s deportation-heavy strategy is unlikely to solve the problem of violent crime in cities, as J. Weston Phippen wrote in The Atlantic last year. In fact, the deportation and incarceration policies of the 1980s and 1990s created the conditions for MS-13, and other gangs like it, to thrive. And even if law enforcement agencies acquired more precise data, harsh detention policies can only be effective if they’re accompanied by a process of gang intervention, working with young affiliates to turn them away from criminal activity and reintegrate them into society. Without that intervention, American cities are likely to see another cycle of rising crime rates and overcrowded prisons, just like the 1980s and 1990s.

The dangers of inflated numbers of gang members are not limited to the U.S. While innocent people might be detained or deported as a result of misidentification, recent immigrants, who might be falsely accused of gang membership, are also likely to be sent back to the dangerous environments they were escaping. As gang data in the United States continue to draw criticism for imprecision, it’s unlikely that law enforcement agencies can accurately collect data on gang affiliations outside the country. “We’re talking about individuals that are coming from [areas] that have absolutely no data let alone a gang database,” Leap said.

Supporters of this administration’s immigration policies argue that the risk of turning away innocent people at the border is part of the cost of better national security. The question, however, is when that cost becomes too big to bear, and whether or not it’s producing effective results.

“I am not saying that MS-13 is not lethal—they are. I’m not denying any of the heinous murders that have occurred. But [the Trump administration] is using wholesale sensationalism to stir up the fears of people that already are afraid of gangs,” Leap said. “And this strategy is going to inflame those fears rather than objectively and judiciously solve this problem.”


Was Obama’s ICE Different?

By Karen Yuan

In our forums discussion of ICE and MS-13, a Masthead member wondered,

What’s really important to me is knowing the way previous administrations handled the issue. This will help me as a reader determine, for myself, if the Trump administration is behaving appropriately.

According to John Sandweg, the acting director of ICE during the Obama administration, the agency’s focus has drastically shifted during the Trump administration. Under President Obama, Sandweg and his agents prioritized arresting criminals. Under Trump, the new priority, according to Sandweg, is arresting as many people as possible. “Gang cases were definitely a priority for us, but clearly under this administration, there’s a really increased focus on it. Gang membership can become a loosely defined term, a basis to justify lots of arrests,” he said.

Atlantic documentary producer Jeremy Raff saw that new focus in action during a day he spent with ICE agents in Phoenix, Arizona in October of 2017. The agents were trying to arrest three undocumented immigrants previously convicted of petty crimes. Jeremy witnessed a team of several agents staking out a trailer park with binoculars in order to catch the target exiting his home. “It struck me what a massive effort it was to arrest even just one person living in this country illegally,” he said. “And since anyone is up for grabs now, it’s really striking how much effort ICE makes to go after people generally not seen by the public as a priority.” (The operation targeted not gang members, but undocumented immigrants with crimes like DUIs.)

Jeremy talked with Sandweg about the former director’s perspective on ICE’s changes between administrations. Below are excerpts of what Sandweg told him, edited for clarity.

Before Trump, ICE focused mainly on criminal populations

Sandweg: When we got into the office, there were no real guidelines for the agents about who to focus their efforts on. So the whole strategy was, rather than it be a haphazard, random number who are arrested, let’s try to zero that in and focus on criminal populations. When I got to ICE, I told the officers, “Hey, our number one priority and our focus is going to be almost exclusively on criminals.” We have very limited resources. The U.S. in its biggest year of deportations in the history of the United States only removed about 200,000 people. There are 11.5 million [undocumented immigrants] in this country. Make the 200,000 the dangerous ones. It’s very common sense ...

I cannot have a felon walk out of a state jail because we’re out doing something else. That has got to be our first and top priority just to make sure we maintain public safety. So that’s not soft to say, “Hey, ignore that guy who’s been here ten years who's got four kids, who goes to church, who’s never been convicted of a crime. Turn a blind eye to him because, you know what? There’s a murderer in the jail we need to go get.” That’s not soft; that’s actually tough, and more importantly, it’s smart.

ICE’s focus on “low-hanging fruit” boosts numbers

Sandweg: If you say, “Okay, guys, the goal is to increase the numbers of deportations and set a record," the only way to achieve that is to shift the focus of the agents. You start looking for and finding the people who had been previously deported and arresting them, because you can just reinstate their final removal of order, and have them back in their home country in two weeks. Whereas, for someone who might have committed a murder but has never been deported before, it’ll take six months to a year to actually deport that individual. You start shifting away from a public safety-based approach to a volume approach.

From a resource allocation perspective, if you’re looking for volume, you’re not going to want your agents driving around for a week, trying to find a convicted criminal, as dangerous as he may be, rather than going somewhere else where they can round up a bunch of the low-hanging fruit. And I am afraid that that’s a little bit of what we are seeing.

That new focus may result in fewer, not more, deported gang members

Sandweg: One thing people don’t realize is that ICE historically has given out what are called “stays of removal.” So there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who might be undocumented, might be removable, but have some urgent humanitarian issue or some other issue that career ICE agents have decided, “Hey, it’s not right now in the government’s best interest to deport you.” These were decisions that pre-date the Obama administration ...

What we have seen recently is that there’s been a real shift to grabbing those individuals, and the reason you grab those individuals, despite the fact that maybe their circumstances haven’t changed, is that they can be deported quickly. You focus on that population instead of the convicted criminals because you’re trying to increase the total number of deportations. But, when you do that, what you’re sacrificing is the arrest and deportation of dangerous people, criminals, gang members—the harder, heavier lifting of immigration enforcement.


Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s question: How are local law enforcement agencies dealing with violent crime in your area? Let us know.

  • What’s coming: Soon, we'll look into how journalists decide when to use the word "liar" to describe a president.

  • Your feedback: Want to share your feedback on The Masthead? Click below.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.