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Immigration disputes overlook LI’s desperate communities

Evelyn Rodriguez talks to President Donald Trump on

Evelyn Rodriguez talks to President Donald Trump on Wednesday about her daughter Kayla Cuevas who was murdered by MS-13 gang members in 2016. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

President Donald Trump’s apocalyptic descriptions of gang violence on Long Island overshadowed the pressing point that emerged Wednesday during his roundtable discussion.

While MS-13 members have committed heinous crimes, they have not “transformed once-peaceful neighborhoods into killing fields,” as Trump said. Nor is it worth the time to argue whom Trump did or did not mean to call “animals.” The politics of immigration legislation in Congress that focused Trump’s renewed attention to MS-13 when the gang has not killed a victim on Long Island in a year is also getting too much attention.

Trump spoke repeatedly in Bethpage about Democrats standing in the way of the tough immigration measures he and the Republican Party are fighting for in Congress, but the reality is that both parties are in chaos over the issue. Factions in each caucus squabble and it remains as unlikely as ever that they will find comprehensive immigration reform that provides both border security and assurances that people brought here illegally as young children, the Dreamers, can stay.

But the crucial issue for Long Island is the one that law enforcement leaders and the parents of murdered teens brought into focus when they addressed Trump. The attention needs to be on the communities that are burdened by a wave of young people from Central America. They need more resources and assistance to keep their communities safe and schools functional.

Nassau Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder spoke of the children killed by MS-13 members in his county. 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 like Brentwood and Central Islip, where these minors are so often sent to live with sponsors, have been overwhelmed by the demand to educate children who, beyond speaking and reading no English, often have had little education at all. Social service providers are incapable of handling the burden of so much need. Often, the sponsors these children are placed with are not suitable guardians. And there are no resources to provide oversight of these homes or educate these kids, even though federal law demands such services be provided.

A lot of attention has been focused on the plight of these unaccompanied minors who have fled here from nations wracked by poverty and violence. Their situations are heartbreaking.

But when the parents of Kayla Cuevas, 16, and Nisa Mickens, 15, two girls murdered by MS-13 in Brentwood in 2016, addressed Trump Wednesday, they reminded us that the American parents and children already living in these communities have rights we must not only respect, but also prioritize. They have a right to schools that are not so crowded and challenged that teaching is impossible, and to streets and homes that are safe.

Beyond the political battles and photo-ops lie the needs of Long Island. Providing for those needs is a challenge leaders on both sides of the aisle are failing to meet.