President Trump flew to New York Friday to talk about “liberating” Long Island from MS-13. Trump has often used the gang, its bloody tactics, and its ties to Central America to push his immigration policies, and the picture he painted Friday was one of Long Island as a war zone.
MS-13, Trump said, has “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful, quiet neighborhoods into blood-stained killing fields.” He said the gang members “stomp on their victims,” “slash at them with machetes,” and stab them with knives. To “every gang member and criminal alien,” Trump threatened, “we will find you, arrest you, we will jail you, and we will deport you.”
In the past 18 months, the gang has been implicated in 17 murders in Long Island. It’s also made gory headlines in Maryland and Northern Virginia, all of which are home to large Central American populations. But while MS-13 is indeed dangerous, as I wrote last month, law enforcement often disagrees with the president on how the gang should be handled. In the United States, MS-13 is seen largely as a domestic law-and-order issue, like other gangs are—and one that deportation won’t solve.
It’s also unclear if the gang, which originated in Los Angeles some 30 years ago, has grown nationally, or if it has become more violent recently. Data are either old or kept at a jurisdictional level. This makes it hard to quantify how MS-13 has changed, and it leaves people susceptible to headlines and anecdotes. For instance, law-enforcement officials in Long Island’s Suffolk and Nassau counties have said crime as a whole—including murder, rape, and robbery—is down. But the stories describing MS-13 killings have nevertheless provided Trump a perfect bogeyman, one his administration has been willing to capitalize on to help push its immigration agenda here and abroad.