News that about a dozen reputed Mara Salvatrucha gang members, better known as MS-13, had been arrested on Long Island in the killings of seven people, at least three of them teenagers, jarred us awake Friday morning. The fact that 10 of the 13 local reputed gang members were in the United States illegally jettisoned the headline around the globe.
It’s hard to say whether MS-13, founded by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s, were the “bad hombres” President Donald Trump controversially spoke of with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto in February, but they surely qualify for the moniker.
MS-13, a Transnational Criminal Organization designee of the U.S. government, wreaks terror in communities throughout the United States, Latin America and Canada. Its members deal in drugs, human smuggling, underage prostitution and gruesome murder, among other non-niceties. They aggressively recruit young Latino immigrants in U.S. cities and suburban communities, including in Queens and on Long Island.
MS-13 is not new to our area. I first learned of the gang in the years immediately after the 9/11 attacks. I was advising a not-for-profit organization comprised of 9/11 family members and others who were seeking to tighten regulations on state-issued driver’s licenses. Licenses had been used by the 19 terrorists to move money, take flight lessons and generally go unnoticed in their travels throughout America. A uniform national standard for state licenses was an explicit directive of the Federal 9/11 Commission.
MS-13 didn’t like the group one bit: Board members began getting calls with highly specific death threats that included surveillance photos of young family members. I can’t go into detail, other than to say that law enforcement authorities eventually pointed to Mara Salvatrucha members as the likely voices on those calls. Suffice it to say, the gang is organized, well-funded and merciless when threatened.
No one wants to politicize the brutal killings of three Suffolk teens, but it’s impossible not to wonder what impact the killings and others like them around the country will have on the raging American debate about illegal immigration. It’s hard to see how Friday’s news coverage, and the upcoming trials for those arrested, don’t help Trump’s call for greater immigration enforcement. The conversation already had begun to tilt in Trump’s direction from my reckoning.
To be sure, not everyone living in our country illegally can be called a “bad hombre.” In fact, experts who study criminality among those in the United States illegally seem to agree that most research indicates immigrants commit crime at lower rates than native-born U.S. citizens. However, outrage among the crimes committed by gang members is surely justifiable.
Family members of Americans killed by immigrants here unlawfully attended Trump’s Joint Session of Congress Tuesday. In the pre-coverage of that session, there were figurative eye rolls galore from detractors of Trump’s immigration policies. But when those poor people stood there on the House chamber balcony — real people; a daughter, a wife who had suffered unimaginable loss — one couldn’t help feeling some of their pain.
Trump hinted before Tuesday’s speech that his administration might be willing to discuss a path to legalization for millions of otherwise law-abiding people living in the United States, providing there be compromise on both sides of the issue.
The Long Island killings remind us that there can be no compromise where gang members are concerned. The Trump administration must have carte blanche to deal with them as aggressively as they deal with their enemies.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.