On May 21, the White House issued a statement that repeatedly used the word “animals” to describe people involved in the MS-13 gang. Two days later, at a public forum on Long Island, this language was repeated and reinforced.
MS-13 (the initials for Mara Salvatrucha) originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s through a complex interplay of people fleeing El Salvador’s civil war, Mexican gangs in southern California, and US immigration policy.
They have committed heinous acts of violence and instill fear in communities across Central America. They are also decidedly not animals. They are sons, fathers, brothers, mothers, sisters, daughters. They are, at times, coerced; they are often terrified; and they can be terrifying.
And in Suffolk County, Long Island, they have not been associated with a single homicide for more than a year.
Our work at the National Network for Safe Communities involves working with cities across the country and, increasingly, the world to address their most serious violence problems. The MS-13 issue has been framed as an immigration issue. There is, of course, a flow of immigration into the United States, and some MS-13 members have participated in that movement. But in none of the two dozen active U.S. city partnerships where we work has MS-13 arisen as a major driver of violence
Indeed, research has shown that as communities increase their immigrant population, they tend to see lowering rates of violent crime.
There absolutely are hot spots nationally of MS-13 activity. The MS-13 affiliate currently getting the most attention is on Long Island, New York, and for good reason. In 18 months from 2016 to mid-2017, the gang was responsible for 17 murders on Long Island, including one quadruple homicide. Yet MS-13 represents a miniscule proportion of migrants and an even smaller number of the overall population.
From October 2015 to June 2016, Long Island received 1,800 unaccompanied minors from Central America. This was more than the year before, but much below the 3,046 who came in 2014. That’s thousands of highly vulnerable and traumatized youth. These numbers don’t include adults or immigrants already residing in Long Island. And yet even with these thousands of people, Suffolk County officials estimate there are fewer than 500 MS-13 members residing there, nearly half of whom are “associates” rather than “confirmed members.”
The vast majority of immigrants from Central America, whether documented or not, are decidedly–empirically–not MS-13 members. More to the point, despite the hundreds of MS-13 members that are present, there have been no murders associated with MS-13 in Suffolk County since April 2017.
It is easy to believe that those who do terrible things are terrible people. But even Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen noted that some confirmed MS-13 members have been forced to collaborate, motivated by fear, debt and threats to their family members.
There are real costs to be paid for wrongly impugning whole populations as somehow subhuman.
Recent research has demonstrated a link between the dehumanizing of certain populations and increased popular support for “measures such as torture and targeting civilians…in battle.” The same study showed a decrease in support of immigration for groups that had been dehumanized.
Indeed, the White House is coupling its rhetoric with immigration crackdowns, including efforts that are resulting in the increased criminalization of anyone who appears to be Central American. There is clear—and awful—historic proof of how significant the consequences of dehumanization can be. Populist leaders, throughout history, have used this tactic to condemn entire populations, thereby enabling state-sponsored violence and repression. The Nazis in Germany referred to Jewish people as vermin; the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia referred to their enemies as worms; the Interahamwe in Rwanda referred to Tutsis as cockroaches.
The repercussions of systemic dehumanization on individuals of African descent are still felt in our own criminal justice system today.
Such measures can give genuinely dangerous individuals the room they need to operate. Our work in El Salvador and across the US demonstrates that those most likely to fall victim to MS-13 are also those most able to support efforts to address this violence. Both in the US and in Central America, MS-13 targets its own communities, extorting small businesses and charging “protection” fees. Those being extorted are unlikely to report or seek help from law enforcement if they risk deportation or discrimination.
Similarly, when youth who are not gang-involved are castigated by the authorities, their sense of alienation and fear of the state will grow, reducing the likelihood they will share knowledge about potential violence with authorities.
If the administration is serious about addressing violence associated with MS-13, there are definite steps that could and should be taken. Most critically, it should involve work with local and state partners to implement policies and strategies that demonstrate actual evidence of lowering violence.
These include practices known as street outreach work, focused deterrence, and cognitive-behavioral therapy. Critically, they have as central tenets respect for offenders’ humanity and rationality: they will respond to the expectation of sanction, they will abandon toxic ways of thinking and acting, they are involved in street dynamics not of their own making. In essence, while they may be at high risk for doing terrible things, they are very much human.
There are also strategies that have a clear track record of not lowering violence: sweeping enforcement, “scared straight” and mano duro (the “iron fist” enforcement strategy currently being used in El Salvador).
Instead of bringing to bear effective anti-violence efforts, the administration is adopting strategies that have consistently failed to protect people from very real threats of violence.
If this continues, we will see more crowded prisons, an empowered MS-13, deteriorated relationships between communities and the government and, ultimately, less safety and greater fear.
Rachel Locke is the Director of International Interventions at the National Network for Safe Communities; a Research Center affiliated with John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which works in partnership with communities, law enforcement and local government to reduce violence. She is currently overseeing research on violence in El Salvador, and welcomes comments from readers.