The image suggested by President Trump’s tweets is dramatic. One can almost see the swarms of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, decked out in tactical gear, pouring out of armored personnel carriers and rappelling from helicopters. They sweep into towns and cities overrun by gang members, blowing through barricades and rounding up criminals like special operators taking out ISIS.
You might think it would be weird for anything like that to be happening in the U.S. without it being huge news, and you’d be right. These images, like the presidential tweets that conjured them, are fantasy. The president’s statements about both ICE and MS-13 over the last few months have consistently fudged the facts on both the role of the agency and the magnitude of the gang.
On Saturday, Trump said:
The Democrats are making a strong push to abolish ICE, one of the smartest, toughest and most spirited law enforcement groups of men and women that I have ever seen. I have watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13 & clean out the toughest of situations. They are great!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2018
Then, on Tuesday, he added this, reprising his use of “infestation” to describe immigrants:
When we have an “infestation” of MS-13 GANGS in certain parts of our country, who do we send to get them out? ICE! They are tougher and smarter than these rough criminal elelments that bad immigration laws allow into our country. Dems do not appreciate the great job they do! Nov.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 3, 2018
Trump’s assertion that he “watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13” should be taken no more literally than his claim to have seen thousands of people celebrating in Jersey City, New Jersey, on September 11. Put simply: It didn’t happen.
This is not to downplay the viciousness of MS-13—the gang is appallingly violent. Nor is it to suggest that ICE doesn’t work to combat MS-13. But ICE is just one of several agencies fighting the gang, and Trump has consistently overstated what ICE does. Other federal entities, including the Justice Department, also play a major role, and the DOJ has made large grants to local police departments to do their own enforcement work. Trump, meanwhile, has overstated the number of deportations of MS-13 members that ICE has conducted, and has falsely claimed the agency is setting new records.
As is often the case with Trump’s falsehoods, it’s hard to know whether he misunderstands what ICE does or is intentionally stretching the truth. Either way, there are several reasons why this particular distortion is helpful to him.
First, MS-13 is a nexus of crime, race, and immigration—three issues that fire up Trump’s supporters. The gang is non-white, violent and dangerous, and composed significantly of immigrants. Despite its outsize reputation, it’s actually comparatively smaller than other famous gangs, such as the Crips and Bloods, and commits fewer murders than those larger groups, too. But MS-13 is the perfect foil for Trump (and his supporters) in speeches and tweets. Speaking about ICE as if it’s practically a band of commandos, liberating whole towns, helps instill the panic that Trump likes to sow and allows him to posture as a war president—a status commanders in chief have sought for decades.
Second, ICE is a more useful vehicle for Trump’s MS-13 rhetoric than other immigration-related agencies. Trump once romanced Customs and Border Protection, another agency under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security. The Border Patrol agents’ union endorsed Trump in the 2016 election, much to his delight. But more recently there’s been tension between the president and the rank-and-file. The union’s head has been critical of Trump’s deployment of the National Guard to the border. By contrast, the acting chief of ICE, Tom Homan, was one of the most outspoken immigration hardliners and backers of the president’s stances in the administration before he retired last week.
Third, fudging what exactly ICE does is useful in Trump’s partisan battles with Democrats. Trump tweeted on Sunday, for example, that “The Liberal Left, also known as the Democrats, want to get rid of ICE, who do a fantastic job, and want Open Borders. Crime would be rampant and uncontrollable!” There is, in fact, a faction among Democrats that is advocating for ICE abolition, but it’s hardly the whole party. The president is also conflating ICE’s abolition with an open-borders policy, when most Democrats (though, again, not all) do not support open borders, and when it is CBP, not ICE, that bears primary responsibility for watching the borders. ICE’s mandate is deportation investigations mostly within the country. It was created from parts of several predecessor agencies in 2003, as part of a post-9/11 reorganization of the federal government.
Trump’s central boast about ICE’s work under his stewardship is that it has ramped up deportations of MS-13 members. The New York Times, working from ICE data, calculated that agents have probably arrested some 1,200 alleged MS-13 members since the 2016 election; how many have actually been deported is unclear, and some arrests may turn out not to hold up. That total matches up with some previous years of MS-13 arrests.
It’s also unclear whether deportations are a useful strategy for fighting the group. For one thing, some members of the gang are American citizens. For another, as ProPublica’s Hannah Dreier writes, “Immigration and Customs Enforcement has arrested some 8,000 suspected MS-13 members in the past decade. If deportation was all it took, the gang would be gone by now.”
In fact, aggressive deportations might help explain the current state of affairs. As Weston Phippen reported in The Atlantic last year, MS-13 was born in Los Angeles, in a community of Salvadoran migrants who had fled a civil war in their home country, fueled in part by American involvement. The gang quickly grew dangerous, and the federal government, grappling with an influx of inmates in prisons, decided to deport members—more than 20,000 between 2000 and 2004 alone.
“In Los Angeles, MS-13 learned to control territory and how to earn money through extortion. Now in El Salvador, the gang took over neighborhoods and feuded with its rival, Barrio 18, another U.S.-born gang,” Phippen wrote. The Salvadoran government proved unequal to the task of fighting the gang. Violence mushroomed across the country. That spawned a new wave of migration, as Salvadorans fled their homes and sought refuge in the U.S.—a replay of the dynamics that created MS-13 in the first place.
This is the problem with exporting crime. You can deport people, and you can build walls, and you can levy tariffs, but crime has a sneaky way of finding its way across borders and barriers. There’s little reason to believe that more deportations will cripple MS-13 any better than previous deportations did, and in fact, it might only foment violence in the longer term. Then again, a dangerous MS-13 makes for a useful political weapon.