The timing of President Donald Trump’s return to Long Island last week to discuss the MS-13 gang made little sense on one hand and all the sense in the world on the other.
In what was called a “highly stage-managed event” in Bethpage, Trump addressed the problem of MS-13, a transnational gang has ties to El Salvador and uses machetes to kill, and to insist on the passage of immigration laws.
From January 2016 through April 2017, the Suffolk County police said there were 17 murders committed by MS-13. In Nassau County, there were six MS-13 murders.
But the gang has not killed a single person on Long Island in a year.
And while gang members have committed heinous crimes and do require aggressive police work, they have not “transformed once-peaceful neighborhoods” into killing fields as Trump has said.
Not to mention that immigrants overall commit fewer crimes than native-born citizens.
Trump, who repeatedly referred to gang members as “animals,” called for the country’s political leadership to toughen “horrible” immigration laws.
In doing so, Trump echoed many of the comments he made about MS-13 when he visited Suffolk County as a candidate. This is odd given that he has now been president for 16 months – with fellow Republicans in charge of both houses of Congress.
But, apparently, still effective.
Then state Sen. Jack Martins echoed Trump’s remarks during his campaign for county executive. The campaign ended with Martins defending a postcard sent on his behalf that used a picture of MS-13 gang members in an El Salvador jail to warn Nassau voters of the peril posed by the immigration policies of his opponent, Laura Curran.
Many called the postcard racist.
Following Trump’s visit last week, James McDermott, the president of the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, praised the president and criticized Curran for a lack of support.
Unmentioned was Curran’s efforts to address the oversized compensation packages of Nassau’s police.
Trump’s reference to gang members as “animals” in Bethpage followed a White House meeting with California leaders opposed to so-called sanctuary city policies in which he appeared to call all undocumented immigrants “animals.”
“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in – and we’re stopping them,” Trump said after Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims complained about state restrictions that limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities. “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
White House officials said Trump was referring to MS-13 gang members when using the term “animals.”
But there is a history here that casts serious doubt on that claim.
In his first press conference as a presidential candidate in 2015, he said the United States had become a “dumping ground” for people other countries didn’t want.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said then. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
He also said repeatedly during the campaign that he would build a wall along the entire length of the Mexican border. And Mexico would pay for it.
As president, Trump has lifted an executive order that protected undocumented children brought to this country at a very young age known as Dreamers and refused to sign legislation that would protect them.
He has also endorsed a policy at the border of the brutal separation of confused, weeping children from parents who cross illegally. The Office of Refugee Resettlement reported at the end of 2017 that of the 7,000-plus children with sponsored individuals following their separation the agency did not know where 1,474 of them were.
The Washington Post offered an explanation of this when it reported that Trump boasted in February 2017 about how easy it is to appeal to audiences with an anti-immigration message.
“Acting as if he were at a rally,” the Post reported, “he recited a few made-up Hispanic names and described potential crimes they could have committed, such as rape and murder. Then, he said, the crowds would roar when the criminals were thrown out of the country.”
We think the evidence is more than clear that Trump used his appearance in Bethpage to rally his supporters to policies that make a mockery of the sentiments expressed on the Statue of Liberty.
This is not to say that there are no issues with immigration in this county or that Nassau and Suffolk counties don’t need help.
Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart told Trump that 4,965 unaccompanied children have been sent to her county since 2014, the most of any county in the nation.
Schools in communities where many of the children have been sent to live with sponsors have been overwhelmed by the demand to educate children who beyond reading and speaking no English often had little education at all.
And there are no resources to provide oversight of these homes.
These are the circumstances that lead to young people joining gangs that we, as a nation of immigrants, know much about.
We also know that rather than trying to use MS-13 to demonize all immigrants, we would all be better served if tough law enforcement was combined with a good education and social programs that address the needs of new Americans.
Correction: A previous version of the story identified PBA President Jim McDermott as a Republican. McDermott said he has no party affiliation.