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Long Island Officials Concerned With Trump's MS-13 Crackdown Tactics


Today, President Trump travels to Long Island, N.Y., to talk about his administration's crackdown on the gang known as MS-13. He's going to visit a town where two high school girls were killed last year, allegedly by members of that gang. Now, local officials agree that MS-13 is a problem, but some worry that the administration's immigration policy and rhetoric might be making their job harder. Here's NPR's Joel Rose.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: MS-13 has been blamed for at least 17 murders on Long Island since last year. None have gotten more attention than the killings of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, two teenage friends who were killed last September with a baseball bat and a machete.


EVELYN RODRIGUEZ: Every year, the numbers increase in school with these gang violence. And it needs to be stopped.

ROSE: That's Cuevas' mother, Evelyn Rodriguez, speaking at a congressional field hearing last month. Rodriguez says she told school officials and police that her daughter was being bullied by a member of MS-13. But she says they didn't take her seriously. Now law enforcement is definitely paying attention. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has pushed for a crackdown on MS-13, which has led to hundreds of arrests in Suffolk County. The president of the United States is paying attention, too. Here's President Trump speaking this week in Ohio.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: One by one, we're finding the illegal gang members - drug dealers, thieves, robbers, criminals and killers. And we're sending them the hell back home where they came from.

ROSE: MS-13 started in California then spread through gang members who were deported to El Salvador and back across the border into the U.S., to cities and towns across the country. In New York, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has detained dozens of alleged gang members. Some have been detained for immigration violations, others charged with crimes. Here's ICE Special Agent in Charge Angel Melendez.

ANGEL MELENDEZ: They enjoy being extremely violent because it's what gives them their standing in the criminal world.

ROSE: According to a senior administration official, the president is going to Long Island to draw a link between illegal immigration and gang-related crime. During a background briefing with reporters, that same administration official maintained MS-13 members have been sneaking into the country as part of the huge wave of unaccompanied children. They've arrived at the southern border from Central America by the tens of thousands over the last few years. Trump blames the Obama administration's immigration policies for the rise in gang violence.


TRUMP: We're liberating our towns. And we're liberating our cities. Can you believe we have to do that?

ROSE: But some local officials on Long Island don't seem interested in the kind of liberation the White House is offering. And they don't believe MS-13 is sending reinforcements in the form of unaccompanied children.

PHIL RAMOS: To me, that's more rhetoric than it is actual fact.

ROSE: Phil Ramos represents Brentwood in the New York State Assembly. He's a Democrat and a former Suffolk County Police officer. Ramos says the administration's immigration rhetoric is scaring law-abiding immigrants and making them less likely to trust the police.

RAMOS: We have families here and young people who are being terrorized by gangs, who will not come forward because of the fear of the Donald Trumps and the Jeff Sessions - who won't come forward and report gang activity or gang threats or violence against their children because they fear that threat from authorities.

ROSE: That leaves Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini in a tight spot. Sini knows he has to work with the county's sizable Central American population because they are the primary victims of MS-13. To ensure the community's trust, Sini says, his department does not work with ICE to deport unaccompanied minors or undocumented immigrants unless they're known gang members. But Sini says residents want to be rid of MS-13.

TIMOTHY SINI: The biggest concern or the biggest ask of the police department is, you know, what are you doing about MS-13? What can you do more? We love that you're solving these murders. What else can we do?

ROSE: Sini says getting violent gang members off the streets will help him build trust with immigrant communities. And he knows he'll need that trust to win the fight against MS-13, a fight that will go on long after the president's speech this afternoon.

Joel Rose, NPR News, Brentwood, N.Y.

(SOUNDBITE OF SYNTHETIC EPIPHANY'S "ETERNAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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