President Donald Trump twice repeated his claim Wednesday that he has “liberated towns” on Long Island from MS-13 gang violence — remarks that came after his decision to reverse his administration’s child migrant separation policy amid widespread furor over the practice.
Trump, speaking to reporters at the White House and later to supporters at a rally in Duluth, Minnesota, said his administration remained committed to tough immigration enforcement policies, despite his reversal on a recent policy separating children and parents detained at the U.S. border that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle described as cruel and inhumane.
“We have liberated towns like it was captured by a foreign country . . . we have liberated towns out in Long Island,” Trump told a crowded arena of supporters at a Duluth campaign rally Wednesday evening.
Trump continued his remarks by saying his administration has “taken them out by the thousands,” referring to members of the transnational gang MS-13, whose members largely hail from Central America.
The president has often pointed to the gang as symbol of lax immigration enforcement laws and has often used Long Island as a backdrop to call for stricter immigration measures. He has made speeches in Brentwood and Bethpage on the gang, and cited the brutal killing of Brentwood teens Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas in his State of the Union address earlier this year.
Speaking to Republican lawmakers at the White House on Wednesday afternoon, Trump urged Congress to pass immigration laws “that don’t allow them to come back in.” The president has been pressing lawmakers to pass a broad immigration package that includes increased funding for his proposed wall along the U.S. and Mexico border.
“Our Border Patrol agents and our ICE agents have done one great job,” Trump said. “ICE is throwing . . . we’re throwing, by the thousands, MS-13. They come into the country. We’re liberating towns on Long Island and other places. We’re throwing them out by the thousands. But we need laws that don’t allow them to come back in.”
The president first made his claim of liberating Long Island from the scourge of MS-13 gang violence months into his first term, during a July 2017 speech in Brentwood on the gang.
“One by one, we’re liberating our American towns,” Trump said in remarks before law enforcement officers at Suffolk Community College. “Can you believe that I’m saying that? I’m talking about liberating our towns. This is like I’d see in a movie: They’re liberating the town, like in the old Wild West, right? We’re liberating our towns. I never thought I’d be standing up here talking about liberating the towns on Long Island where I grew up.”
Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder, appearing at a roundtable discussion on MS-13 hosted by the president in Bethpage last month, said the department had identified about 500 MS-13 members, of whom about 250 were active. Suffolk Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart, at the same event, said Suffolk police working with federal law enforcement partners have arrested 235 MS-13 gang members since Mickens and Cuevas were killed in September 2016.
While Trump says thousands of MS-13 members have been booted from the country, there is no data available to verify the claim because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not keep statistics on such deportations.
“While ICE does not track gang removals by specific gang, ICE does specifically target MS-13 members for arrest and removal on the basis of their immigration violations, enabling these public safety threats to be removed from the communities they are victimizing and returned to their home countries,” Danielle Bennett, an ICE spokeswoman, told The Washington Post in February.
While Republican lawmakers including Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) and Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) have credited the president with drawing attention to the issue of MS-13 gang violence, some local gang prevention groups have said recent gang-related arrests on Long Island are due to a combination of factors including ramped up local law enforcement efforts and a boost in state funding for anti-gang programs. In April, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed off on $18.5 million in state funding for programs on Long Island aimed at eradicating the gang’s presence.
In response to Trump’s remarks, Jeffrey Reynolds, president and chief executive of the Family and Children’s Association, a Mineola nonprofit that runs an anti-gun violence initiative called SNUG, said “any reduction in violence is directly attributable to local law enforcement’s efforts combined with community based nonprofits working harder than ever before to engage young people as we await new state funding.”
“The president’s rhetoric hasn’t exactly been liberating,” Reynolds said. “If anything it has fueled anti-immigrant sentiments, distrust and fear, which make it harder to bring communities together.”