During a round-table immigration event on Wednesday afternoon, President Trump stated that MS-13 gang members were abusing “glaring loopholes” in the U.S. immigration system and exploiting the Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJS) classification that grants unaccompanied minors permanent residency in the United States to get into the country.
Official data, however, shows the problem is far less pervasive than Trump claims.
“We have the biggest loopholes of any country, anywhere in the world. We have the worst immigration laws of any country, anywhere in the world,” he said. “They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors. They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”
— Fox News (@FoxNews) May 23, 2018
Trump then pointed to the families of two MS-13 victims — 15-year-old Nisa Mickens and 16-year-old Kalya Cuevas, who were killed by bat- and machete-wielding MS-13 gang members in 2016 — saying he would “pledge to honor the memory of those [they had] lost with action and resolve.”
“They will not have passed in vain, that I can tell you,” he said.
While it is true some suspected MS-13 members have entered the country as unaccompanied minors, statistics show the number of those who do so is relatively low compared to the number of unaccompanied minors with no criminal affiliations.
According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, as well as Justice Department, Border Patrol, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) data, there were approximately 240,000 unaccompanied minors who entered the United States between 2012 and 2017. Out of those 240,000, Al Jazeera notes, only 56 were linked to MS-13.
ICE officials in March gave a slightly higher total, stating that they had arrested 64 alleged MS-13 members since May 2017 under a program called Operation Matador, all of whom had supposedly obtained Special Immigrant Juvenile Status (SIJ) after entering the United States.
It’s likely, then, that certain MS-13 members have exploited the SIJ or unaccompanied minor loophole to infiltrate U.S. communities. However, that issue is far less serious than Trump might believe — especially since some of those arrested in the past year claim they were mistakenly identified as gang members.
“[I was stopped by the police] Then, they told they have to take me to the police precinct to verify my name,” one teen who migrated from El Salvador in 2014 told Al Jazeera’s Fault Lines in April. “I told them I wasn’t a gang member and didn’t know any gang members. Then, they told me they didn’t believe me and I was some sort of gang member.”
The 17 year old, identified only as “Juan,” told Al Jazeera that he was then turned over to ICE and held in a high-security juvenile detention facility for six months.
“I was asking myself why they are going to deport me, what do they think? Because I knew immigration was coming for me, especially with how things are,” he said. “…Truthfully, I felt alone, with no one to console me or anything like that. I still feel sad. Everything I went through, you don’t forget about it easily.”
Additionally, as law professor John Pfaff tweeted Monday, citing FBI Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data, there were approximately 207 murders committed by members of MS-13 since 2012. While no doubt disconcerting, that figure still pales in comparison to the number of overall homicides committed during that time period, which the FBI says is close to 76,000.
“That means MS-13 is responsible for less than 0.3% of all US murders during that time,” wrote Pfaff, who teaches at Fordham Law School and has written extensively about mass incarceration and criminal justice reform. Overall, he said, the numbers seem to indicate the MS-13 problem is far less invasive than the president claims.
Trump has used looming fears of MS-13 violence and other similar incidents to push a flagrantly racist immigration platform, one that predominantly targets people of color, such as South and Central American immigrants, and those from Muslim-majority countries, and conflates immigrants with organized crime.
In addition to calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers in his campaign announcement in 2015, Trump has repeatedly painted immigrants as a direct threat to U.S. security. In April, for instance, Trump labeled a caravan of immigrants headed to the southern U.S. border — many of whom were seeking asylum from gang violence — “a disgrace” and claimed his administration would prosecute those who crossed the border seeking protection.
“We are the only Country in the World so naive! WALL,” he tweeted at the time.
More recently, the president was criticized for appearing to refer to undocumented immigrants as “animals.” Although Trump claimed he had been referring to MS-13 gang members, video footage of the meeting in which he made the remark showed he had not, in fact, made that distinction.