Trump’s war against MS-13 is now a war against migrant children fleeing gang violence

“The people who lose the most are the asylum seekers because they’re treated now like they’re suspected gang members."

A U.S. Border Patrol agent prepares to take an unaccompanied Salvadoran minor, 13, to a processing center after he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States in 2014. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images
A U.S. Border Patrol agent prepares to take an unaccompanied Salvadoran minor, 13, to a processing center after he crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico into the United States in 2014. CREDIT: John Moore/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has used the infamous MS-13 gang as a justification for his anti-immigrant policies, and made the Salvadoran-American gang public enemy No.1 in his State of the Union speech last month. Now, the next round in Trump’s war against the gang will include going to battle against children who are fleeing violence-torn Central American countries and are seeking asylum from the very gang the administration is targeting.  

At a roundtable discussion Tuesday, Trump described MS-13 as “one of the most violent and vicious gangs in the world,” and said his administration will seek to close immigration loopholes that allow gang members to enter the country illegally. 

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“MS-13 recruits through our broken immigration system, violating our borders, and it just comes right through. Whenever they want to come through, they come through,” Trump told those gathered at the White House, including members of Congress, Justice Department officials, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) authorities.

Immigration experts, however, said Trump’s portrayal of the U.S. asylum system as one that allows dangerous individuals to enter the country illegally couldn’t be further from the truth. 

“Asylum seekers go through a long, complex process filled with safeguards against fraud before they are finally able to rebuild their lives in safety,” Jennifer Quigley, advocacy strategist for refugee protection at Human Rights First, told ThinkProgress in an emailed statement. “By peddling the misleading narrative that asylum seekers are gang members and loopholes, the president threatens the lives of thousands of desperate individuals and betrays our country’s greatest strength.” 

Given Trump’s fear-based, racially-charged rhetoric connecting MS-13 violence to illegal immigration, some attorneys and legal advocates feared the administration would target unaccompanied immigrant children — many of whom have fled due to gang violence and pressure to join gangs in their native countries. These experts told ThinkProgress they have seen an increase in undocumented immigrant youth detained in the interior of the United States for alleged gang involvement, as well as Central American children seeking asylum at the border being over-identified as gang members.

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Los Angeles immigration attorney Erika Pinheiro said the “hysteria” around MS-13 stigmatizes Central American children seeking asylum in the United States.

[The hysteria] has intensified under Trump. I think a lot of it has to do with the criminalization of asylum seekers from those countries,” Pinheiro said. “I think that because we have these obligations under international law to accept and process asylum seekers, there’s been this big push toward demonization of these people or painting them as gang members or economic migrants, when in fact they are fleeing for their lives.”

Acting Assistant Attorney General John Cronan, who oversees the Justice Department’s criminal division, said during Tuesday’s roundtable that his agency is devoting resources and renewing its focus on offenders who have a nexus to gangs or drug cartels. Cronan said he has created border coordinators in U.S. attorney general’s offices with a special emphasis on MS-13, which he said has 10,000 members across 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Cronan said many of those members have entered the United States illegally.  

“When we fail to enforce our immigration and human smuggling laws, when we have loopholes in our immigration laws, and when we have porous borders and insufficient enforcement of our immigration laws, MS-13 can simply replenish its jailed population by sending more and more gang members across our borders,” Cronan said.

Angel M. Melendez, ICE’s special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in New York City, told the president that 21,881 unaccompanied children who were resettled in the United States last year by the federal government hail from Central America’s violent Northern Triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

Many of these children are the prime age for gang recruitment and are male, Melendez told Trump.

I am not saying — and I want to be clear — that 21,000 of these unaccompanied alien children are gang members. What I’m saying — understanding MS-13 — is that they are looking at these 21,000 unaccompanied alien children that came into the states, as potential recruits to continue to fill in their ranks,” said Melendez.

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Melendez also pointed out that across certain ICE operations, 30 percent of MS-13 gang members who have been arrested came into the United States as unaccompanied minors.

Conflating gang membership with children seeking asylum puts many youth with legitimate claims to stay in the United States at risk, immigration experts told ThinkProgress.   

Pinheiro has represented unaccompanied immigrant children for more than half a dozen years and specializes in representing undocumented youth with complex gang-based asylum claims, as well as those with juvenile adjudications. So she has a unique vantage point on how undocumented youth with gang allegations have been treated in the immigration courts under both the Obama and Trump administrations.

She estimates that less than 1 percent of those children had any kind of voluntary involvement in gangs. It’s rare, she said, to see kids who want to join a gang.  

“The vast majority of the kids were, ‘I wanted nothing to do with it. I was going to church I just wanted to study.’ A lot of them are just more vulnerable because they don’t have their parents there,” said Pinheiro, who works at the Los Angeles-based legal services organization Al Otro Lado. 

Last year, Al Otro Lado and other legal aid services organizations filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), alleging that border patrol agents are systematically turning away asylum seekers through the use of false statements, threats, verbal abuse, and force.

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Pinheiro said customs and border patrol agents conducting asylum interviews are unfairly using any information about gang involvement against children who are coerced or forced under threat to give money or support to the gangs in their native countries. She sees this behavior as part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to demonize Central American immigrants, painting them as gang members or economic migrants, even though they are fleeing from violence.

“The people who lose the most are the asylum seekers because they’re treated now like they’re suspected gang members,” said Pinheiro. “And unfortunately… they’re most often the victims of the gangs.”

In the immigration court system, children are facing what immigration attorney Angie Junck described as a more heavy-handed approach under the Trump administration because of these gang allegations.  

Central American unaccompanied minors, in particular, are being targeted and penalized via fear-based narratives that paint an inaccurate picture of the situations they are fleeing, she said.  

“What is so concerning is that we used to think, at least with minors, the federal government would say we have to treat them differently in some regards — that we don’t have the resources to prioritize them [for removal],” said Junck, a supervising attorney for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. “But now they are front and center. They are like the poster child.”

After years of declining violent crime nationwide, MS-13 came back into the spotlight several years ago after a series of high-profile killings along the East Coast, including gruesome stabbings in the Virginia and Maryland region, and a string of highly-publicized murders on New York’s Long Island.

Police warned the public that gang violence was getting “out of control,” and media accounts have described the murders as part of a resurgence or comeback of MS-13. Also known as Mara Salvatrucha, which roughly translates as Salvadoran gang, MS-13 emerged in Los Angeles in the 1980s in the Salvadoran immigrant community.  

Even before Trump made a point of visiting Long Island last summer to admonish MS-13, describing its members as animals and the organization a cartel that must be must be dismantled and destroyed, he made it clear gang members would be targeted for deportation by his administration.

But last year at a Senate hearing focusing on MS-13 and its “nexus to illegal immigration,” arrest figures released by ICE officials showed that gang members are more likely to be U.S. citizens than undocumented immigrants.

Project New Dawn, an ICE collaboration with other law enforcement agencies that targeted gangs nationwide from March to May this year, resulted in 1,378 arrests, most of whom were U.S. citizens, and the remainder (445) were foreign nationals from 21 countries throughout the world. Of those arrested, most were gang members (762) or gang associates (333), and of those, 104 were affiliated with MS-13, according to testimony from ICE and DHS officials.

“In the media, we see how Trump and how [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions have just sort of started referring to gangs and immigrants as being synonymous,” said Rachel Prandini, an immigration attorney who focuses on immigrant youth issues for the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. “They talk about MS-13 as if every person who is in MS-13 is an undocumented immigrant, and that’s the not case.”