They sparked one of the longest and most unanimous ovations of the State of the Union address: the parents of teenagers Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who were killed with machetes in 2016 by MS-13 gang members in Long Island, New York.
From the audience, they witnessed President Donald Trump's speech to Congress, in which he once again defended his hard-line policy against the Salvadoran gang which was forged in Los Angeles in the 1980s:
"These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown. Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisa's murders," the president said. "Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors."
Evelyn Rodriguez, Kayla's mother and a family activist for the victims of the MS-13, wept as Trump attacked a gang that has become one of his favorite scapegoats. The group, made up of Latinos and famous for its brutality and its paraphernalia of tattoos and rituals, has allowed immigration critics to link their cause to violent crimes, such as the deaths Nisa and Kayla. In the past, Trump has compared the gang scourge with that of the Al Qaeda terrorist group has referred to its members as "illegals" and "real animals."
Citizens are also gang members
However, many of the MS-13 members are US citizens. Last May, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) conducted a major operation to detain gang members. Of the 1,095 detainees who were alleged members of the gang or had links to the gang, 933 were US citizens (85%). In a similar operation in 2016 in which it arrested 1,133 individuals, 894 turned out to be citizens (78%).
In his speech, Trump pointed to unaccompanied minors as directly responsible for MS-13 crime wave, which has hit Long Island, as well as Fairfax County, Virginia, some areas near Washington DC and in parts of Los Angeles.
But only a small percentage of unaccompanied minors end up swelling the mara ranks. For example, in the counties of Nassau and Suffolk, where authorities estimate that the gang has committed at least 25 murders since 2016, more than 8,500 unaccompanied children have arrived since the humanitarian crisis of 2014. Of the 90 alleged gang members authorities arrested between May and August of last year, less than one third (27) were unaccompanied minors.
Fleeing the gangs
Of the unaccompanied minors apprehended at the southwest border since 2011, only 56 out of 250,000 were either suspected or confirmed to have gang ties in their home countries, according to the acting Border Patrol chief. ICE’s gang unit arrested 114,434 suspected gang members in 2016, but only 429 of them were MS-13 members.
In fact, immigration activists point out that the great vast majority of people arriving at the southwest border are fleeing gang violence in their home countries.
Trump's immigration policy, which includes deporting hundreds of thousands of Central Americans, is popular with his conservative political base but could make the problem much worse, some experts say. On Jan 8 the Trump administration announced it was ending temporary protected status for Salvadorans after Sept. 9, 2019, meaning those immigrants currently in the U.S. will have to return to El Salvador or be subject to deportation.
"The effect of forcing that many people to return to El Salvador, a country with a population of only 6.34 million, is likely to only reinforce a gang that currently pales in comparison to others," according to Mike Vigil, the former Chief of International Operations for the Drug Enforcement Administration. "The result may create a greater danger by far to both the U.S. and El Salvador," he wrote in an opinion column for The Cipher Brief.
He added that other criminal gangs such as the Latin Kings, the Bloods and the Aryan Brotherhood are much more violent. "Some are even larger than MS-13, and they have tentacles throughout the U.S., " he noted.
Hispanics, victims of the extortion of MS-13
The president also forgot to mention, that a good number of the MS-13 murder victims are young Hispanics. They were, for example, Justin Llivicura, Jefferson Villalobos, Michael Lopez and Jorge Tigre, four young immigrants aged between 16 and 20 years old were brutally murdered last April, also on Long Island. Newly arrived youths are a particularly vulnerable community that on the one hand fall under the gaze of ICE and, on the other hand, are targets of gang extortion.
Trump and his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, traveled to Long Island on two separate occasions last year to pledge to eradicate MS-13. Since then, the Union of American Civil Liberties (ACLU) has denounced a campaign of persecution and detention of immigrants based on "vague evidence of presumed gang membership."
For example, an undocumented girl spent a month in a jail (waiting for her case to be heard by an immigration judge) after ICE stopped her for speaking to a suspected MS-13 member in her high school.
The number of MS-13 members is relatively small: the FBI estimates that there are 10,000 members in the United States, 0.7% of the total number of U.S. gang members.