Since his inauguration, President Trump has done his utmost to make the American people as terrified as possible of the MS-13 street gang — and by extension, any immigrant from Central America.
The president has tweeted lies about watching Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) “liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13,” has claimed unaccompanied immigrant children are actually MS-13 gang members in disguise, and has referred to immigrants as “animals.”
The GOP has happily followed along. Former Virginia gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie accused his Democratic rival Ralph Northam of fostering MS-13 growth by supporting sanctuary cities last September. And in June, amid the ongoing family separation crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, in which thousands of immigrant children were ripped from their families and thrown into juvenile detention centers, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) tweeted a photo of some of those children, claiming they were “prime MS-13 gang material.”
Now, it seems, those pushing such scare tactics are finally achieving their intended goal.
A new poll by the Huffington Post and YouGov, published Friday, found 85 percent of Trump voters think the street gang poses a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” threat to the United States as a whole. More than half thought the gang posed a direct threat to their community, and 51 percent said they were “somewhat” worried they would become a direct victim of MS-13.
Nearly a quarter of those polled believed MS-13 to be the largest gang in the United States.
MS-13 is indeed an extremely violent and dangerous gang, with more than 30,000 members across seven countries. Violence is also central to MS-13’s ethos, and the group is responsible for a series of grisly murders in the United States — most involving teenage victims from immigrant communities.
But the belief MS-13 poses an existential threat to the United States is not based in fact. Despite their violent background, MS-13 is remarkably unsophisticated. The group depends upon controlling territory for revenue, meaning it usually gets its money from extortion, racketeering and low-level drug-dealing, as opposed to the highly complex schemes of groups like the Mexican cartels.
Between 2012 and 2015, police anti-extortion raids in El Salvador — their home turf — confiscated an estimated $35,000 from MS-13, according to the New York Times. Even accounting for police corruption, that is an absurdly small number compared to Sinaloa Cartel, whose yearly profits rank in the billions.
What’s more, the regions of the United States in which MS-13 is particularly active — like Maryland and Long Island — tend to be the ones most at-risk of MS-13 violence, not the Trump strongholds of rural America and the South. However, even in those at-risk neighborhoods, Trump’s immigration policies have made community members reluctant to work with police, because they fear they, too, may be deported.
None of this matters to Trump, because MS-13 serves a useful political purpose: a violent outside group that can be used to stir up hatred of immigrants. Additionally, as ThinkProgress previously reported, ICE has begun using unsubstantiated gang membership allegations as an excuse to kick immigrants out of the country. Children fleeing violence in Central America to seek asylum have also been targeted, on the presumption that they might be MS-13 gang members.