At the Morrelly Homeland Security Center on Long Island Wednesday, President Trump accepted praise from local officials, law enforcement and parents of MS-13’s teenage victims for his commitment to crack down on the violent street gang that has wreaked havoc on pockets of the New York City suburbs in recent years.
The event was billed by the White House as a roundtable “on immigration loopholes that enable MS-13 to infiltrate our communities.” But at times it almost seemed as though the purpose was to validate the president’s description of MS-13 members as “animals.”
“I called them animals the other day, and I was met with rebuke,” Trump said, referring to backlash over his use of the word in a context that some listeners took to mean undocumented immigrants in general. He later insisted that he was referring specifically to MS-13 members.
“They said they are people,” Trump said of Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, who criticized his language. “They are animals.”
Going around the table, Trump received repeated reassurances that his use of the word “animals” to describe members of the gang, whose primary activity is violence, was accurate.
Though MS-13 originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and is currently active in only a handful of communities around the United States, Trump has long touted the violent acts committed by this group of primarily Central American immigrants as proof of his claim, which he repeated on Long Island Wednesday, that the U.S. has “the worst immigration laws of any place anywhere in the world.”
Trump, accompanied by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, pointed to laws designed to protect vulnerable unaccompanied minors seeking asylum at the border as “loopholes” exploited by the gang, which now operates primarily out of El Salvador. Rosenstein did acknowledge, however, that these problems are nuanced, noting that not only are we “letting people in who are gang members. We’re also letting people in who are vulnerable. Many of these alien children who have no parents, no family structure … are vulnerable to recruitment to MS-13.”
Evelyn Rodriguez and Robert Mickens, whose slain teenage daughters Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens have become perhaps the most high profile victims of MS-13, both called for more resources, particularly in the public schools, to help prevent vulnerable immigrant teens, like those charged in their daughters’ deaths, from being recruited by violent gangs.
“These kids are coming in unaccompanied,” said Rodriguez. “They don’t know who to turn to. They’re afraid. They’re coming from a country that they were afraid with their law enforcement, people they couldn’t trust. Here we have to make sure that the resources and the programs are there for them.”
Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart said the department has already begun to place “strong emphasis on community relations and a significant investment in gang intervention strategies, with a particular focus on unaccompanied alien children.” She credited this “multifaceted approach” for the arrests of more than 200 MS-13 gang members since September 2016.
“There has not been an MS-13 murder in Suffolk County since April of 2017,” she said.
But Trump stuck to his darker view, threatening to cut foreign aid to the home countries of foreign-born MS-13 gang members, saying those governments encourage gang members to emigrate and refuse to take them back when the U.S. tries to deport them.
“They don’t want the people that we’re getting,” Trump said. “Every time someone comes in from a certain country, we’re going to deduct a rather large sum of money.”
After about an hour of conversation about the brutality and “savage” violence of the “horrible people” that constitute the MS-13 “menace,” Trump concluded Wednesday’s panel by praising Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents for aggressively carrying out his crackdown.
“The ICE guys are a lot rougher than the MS-13 guys. They’re rougher, they’re tougher, they’re meaner,” Trump said. “It would be wonderful if we could talk nicely and softly, but the only language they understand is toughness.”
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