Trump puts spotlight on MS-13

The Trump administration is highlighting the dangers posed by the MS-13 criminal organization as it seeks to build support for its tougher deportation policies and a stalled push to build a wall on U.S.-Mexico border.

President Trump and two of his Cabinet members offered warnings Tuesday about the dangers posed by MS-13, a gang based in El Salvador that has offshoots in cities across the United States.

Trump tweeted that “weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS 13 gangs to form in cities across U.S.”

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Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsDNC chairman slams Sessions for deportation comments Trump: Mexico will 'eventually' pay for border wall Becerra fires back: 'We're not in the business of deportation' MORE convened a meeting of the Organized Crime Council, a group of officials from 13 federal agencies, to discuss a strategy to dismantle the gang. In remarks before the meeting, Sessions blamed an “open border and years of lax immigration enforcement” for the expansion of MS-13 in American cities.

Later that morning, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly invoked the group in a graphic and dark description of the threat from transnational gangs, calling them “utterly without laws, conscience or respect for human life.”

For some immigration experts, the sudden focus on MS-13 appeared to be a coordinated move to have a defined villain in an increasingly bitter fight over the administration’s concentration on immigration.

Trump's use of the phrase “bad hombres” in the campaign provided a target for his opponents, who accuse the administration of building its immigration policy around a sweeping generalization of Hispanics as criminals.

The president made tightening up the nation’s borders — including the promise of the wall — a cornerstone of his campaign.

“This is what they’ve been saying from the beginning, but now they’re using language people find much more palatable,” said Ana Quintana, who leads the Heritage Foundation’s policy efforts towards Latin America.

Analysts saw the specter of MS-13 as a vehicle for the administration to build support for enhanced border security and interior enforcement.

On Capitol Hill, the idea of funding a potentially $70 billion border has met tough resistance, as fiscal hawks in the GOP look elsewhere for border security measures, bolstered by aggressive Democratic opposition to the idea.

Since January, the Trump administration has endured bad press with several immigration cases whose targets for deportation have gained public sympathy.

“By moving the attention to criminal gangs, it makes it easier for them to justify increased enforcement and the deportation force they’ve been talking about,” said Sarah Trumble, deputy director of social policy at the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way.

“No one is less sympathetic than criminal alien gang members.”

MS-13 is the U.S.-based arm of Salvadoran crime gang Mara Salvatrucha. Its members are known for their violent methods and fierce gang loyalty. According to the National Gang Intelligence Center, MS-13 has more than 10,000 members in the United States, and more than 30,000 worldwide.

Geoff Thale, an expert on Central American gang violence at the Washington Office for Latin America (WOLA), said the gang originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s among Salvadoran and Honduran war refugees.

MS-13 only became a transnational organization after mass deportations of Hondurans and Salvadorans in the 1990s, where they organized under the weaker rule of law in Central America, said Thale.

Ivan Garcia Hidalgo, a conservative political analyst, said the focus on MS-13 bolsters the administration's focus on border security.

Unlike many undocumented immigrants who enter the country legally and overstay their visas, most undocumented MS-13 members and other dangerous criminals “have not entered in an airplane or with a visa,” he said.

Trumble suggested that the administration could also be trying to lay the groundwork to penalize sanctuary cities in a measure Congress will consider next week to keep the government funded. The administration has threatened to pull federal resources from local governments with sanctuary policies, but that threat has run into snags, including the lack of a legal definition of a sanctuary city.

Sessions on Tuesday argued that sanctuary cities are “aiding these cartels to refill their ranks and putting innocent life — including the lives of countless law-abiding immigrants — in danger.”

Proponents of sanctuary cities, whose leaders limit cooperation with federal immigration authorities, say linking local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities undermines trust between immigrant communities and police.

Some saw parallels in the new focus on MS-13 to Trump’s controversial executive order limiting travel from six Muslim-majority countries. Trump on the campaign trail had called for a ban on Muslims entering the U.S. — a proposal critics say was realized in spirit in the travel ban.

“This is ‘the bad hombres’ on a slightly more enforceable scale — but really all he’s going to use it to do is do mass round-ups,” said Trumble.