MS-13 isn’t the real enemy

The gang’s brutality is undeniable. But the president’s rhetoric erodes American ideals.


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California is often the first state in the West to test new solutions to social and environmental problems. These days, the state is at the fore of a much more ambitious challenge, as it finds its progressive ideals — and its increasingly diverse citizenry — in frequent opposition to the policies of President Donald Trump. Every month, in the Letter from California, we chronicle efforts in the state to grapple with its role in the changing, modern West.

If you tuned in to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address on Jan. 30, you heard that working-class immigrants in this country are, above all, a security threat to everyone else. The president implicitly linked all young, brown working-class men to La Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), a violent criminal gang started by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

“Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors,” Trump said. “We have sent thousands and thousands of MS-13 horrible people out of this country or into our prisons.”

There is nothing new about Trump’s claims: Since before the 2016 election, he has blamed the United States’ supposedly “open borders” for the deaths of innocent Americans. That’s why we must build his border wall, he says, and deport them all. But Trump’s threatening words, with their thinly veiled racism, only draw attention to this administration’s rapid erosion of civil rights. They are meant to instill fear in the public, while advancing a false narrative about immigration and what it means to be American. 

And the strength of the president’s claims fades under scrutiny. According to government data, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested around 800 suspected gang members last year, not thousands. It is unclear how many of them belonged to MS-13. What is clear is that the crackdown resulted in the unlawful detention of minors, including 26 teenagers who were charged with “gang affiliation” until the American Civil Liberties Union the government on their behalf. 

Salvadoran immigrants Diana Paredes, left, and Isabel Barrera, right, react following an announcement from the Trump administration ending special protections for immigrants from El Salvador on Jan. 8, 2018. That action could force nearly 200,000 to leave the U.S. by September 2019 or face deportation.
Damian Dovarganes/AP

MS-13’s brutality is undeniable, as is the long history of violence in Honduras and El Salvador, where many gang members come from. Over the past decade, both countries have ranked as two of the most dangerous in the world outside of active war zones. The conflict goes back at least a hundred years, to the first of a series of U.S. military invasions and political interventions in Central America, done in the name of American corporate interests. American involvement in El Salvador’s civil war and Honduras’ repressive policies seeded the political and economic instability that has swept the region in the past four decades, leading to widespread human rights abuses, and unsurprisingly, mass emigration to the United States. 

Today, an estimated 2 million people of Honduran and Salvadoran descent live and work in the U.S. About 250,000 of them are here under Temporary Protected Status, short-term work visas for immigrants from places where environmental disasters or armed conflicts make it too dangerous for them to return home. Next year, under new White House directives, many of these legal residents could be facing deportation. And then there are those who stand to lose their right to claim asylum: the “unaccompanied minors” — meaning those tens of thousands of Central American children and teenagers who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border since about 2010, fleeing gang violence and seeking a better, safer life.

Since the 1980s, California has been an important refuge for those fleeing war, poverty and gangs: Almost half of all Central American immigrants in the U.S. live in the Los Angeles area. Now, Trump is raising the specter of MS-13 to advocate sending thousands of immigrants back to countries ravaged by violence largely of our own creation. A mandate to welcome “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” has long guided America’s unique style of inclusiveness, but in just the span of a single year, we’ve witnessed how rapidly that can erode. So beware of the current push for a border wall and deportations: They are code for something bigger and much more dangerous.

As a resident of Los Angeles and a naturalized citizen, I routinely feel offended by this rhetoric. But I not need be a foreigner to be hurt by it; it is, or it ought to be, a collective pain. More than a third of my city is made up of immigrants from all over the world, with or without papers. Imagine the trauma faced by neighbors and coworkers who may be suddenly separated from their families after an arrest over a minor traffic infraction. Think of the young undocumented Dreamer who has been able to work in the U.S. thanks to the DACA program, but who is now under constant threat of deportation, and whose reputation is wrongly tarnished by violent gangs. All the fiery rhetoric about MS-13 reflects little of the reality of these people’s lives. In California, a state that’s thriving partly due to the hard work of immigrants, it undermines our shared ideals of multiculturalism and opportunity. So next time you hear the president spew generalized falsehoods about an entire people, ask yourself: Is this really what it means to be American?

Contributing editor Ruxandra Guidi writes from Los Angeles, California.

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