By terminating the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadoran immigrants, the Trump administration, with its signature myopia and bigotry, is once again worsening the very problem it set out to fix.
Revoking the legal status of some 200,000 law-abiding Salvadorans will likely push a massive group of Salvadorans into the shadows of undocumented America, where gangs are king. And insulting El Salvador as a "shithole" country only ups the hostility and increases the threat level for undocumented immigrants.
"This is a win-win for the gangs," says José Miguel Cruz, a Central American gang expert at Florida International University (FIU). "It creates the perfect storm in the United States for the MS-13 to grow."
Actually, it's more like a win-win-win-win for the MS-13:
Win #1 = a boon to U.S. recruitment. By dividing families and pushing legal immigrants into the underground, a whole new generation of young Salvadoran immigrants could turn to the gangs for alternative forms of protection and family. That's how the gangs operate. That's how they recruit.
Win #2 = a boon to Central American recruitment. Salvadorans who return to El Salvador — in many cases after two decades living in the U.S. — will likely be "welcomed" home by the MS-13 and their rival, Barrio 18, which control most of the territory in the country. Gangs prey on returning immigrants who have wads of cash and weak community connections.
Win #3 = fewer snitches. U.S. law enforcement relies on informants within the immigrant community to monitor gang activity and curb proliferation. But undocumented immigrants who are fearful of deportation are a lot less likely to cooperate with authorities. So by denying Salvadoran immigrants their legal status the U.S., the Trump government is also denying itself one of its most valuable allies in the war on gangs.
Win #4 = jail recruitment. The prison system has always been fertile ground for gang recruitment. Salvadorans who lose their TPS and subsequently get arrested and put into deportation proceedings will likely make connection with gangs behind bars, even if it's something they managed to avoid on the outside world.
Those who know their history will recognize that this is exactly how the gangs flourished in the first place. The MS-13 went from being a local California street gang in 1980s to a transnational criminal organization thanks to the United States' policies of mass incarceration and deportation.
Those policies continue to fuel gang growth today. Over the past 30 years, the Central American gangs have always gotten stronger in response to heavy-handed repression, incarceration, and deportation. It's exactly why the mano dura policies employed in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras backfired so spectacularly. And it's why gang membership in El Salvador has grown exponentially during the past decade, from 14,000 members to 70,000 members, according to some estimates.
Trump, of course, knows nothing about history or how things work. According to author Michael Wolff, Trump doesn't even have the mental acuity to "link cause and effect" on "the most basic level." So not only is Trump too ignorant to realize that he's repeating history, he's also too simple-minded understand the implications of doing so.
"We're doing exactly the same thing from 20 or 30 years ago," Cruz told me. "We're circling back to zero and making all the same mistakes all over again."
Cruz predicts Trump's actions will ultimately hurt the U.S. more than El Salvador, which has been in crisis mode for years. The U.S., on the other hand, is about to have a much more noticeable gang problem — one, Cruz says, where the horror stories of MS-13 brutality in places like Long Island and Virginia start to happen on a national level.
For Trump, who already likes to overstate the MS-13 problem in the U.S., canceling TPS will become "a self-fulfilling prophecy" where real gang violence could finally reach the levels that only exist now in the president's imagination, Cruz warns.
And it's not just Salvadoran immigrants who will suffer, but also a new generation of U.S.-born children.
Geoff Thale, a Central American gang expert for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), notes that an estimated 200,000 U.S.-born children are going to have "family situations that get more difficult" after their parents lose the right to legally live and work in the United States.
"The instability and stress will be harder for kids to manage, and the numbers of those vulnerable to gang recruitment is going to go up," Thale warns. "I don’t mean to be alarmist, but if the Trump Administration wants to reduce gang violence and gang membership in both the U.S. and El Salvador, it’s just taken a step in the wrong direction."
Put in terms the president can understand, Trump is helping the Salvadoran gangs turn the United States into precisely the type of "shithole" country he so despises.
#MAGA, homie! #MAGA