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Critics Of President Trump Say He's Highlighting The MS13 Gang For Political Purposes


President Trump invited the parents of two teenage girls from Long Island to last night's State of the Union. Their daughters were killed allegedly by members of the violent street gang known as MS-13. President Trump called on the parents during his speech.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Evelyn, Elizabeth, Freddy and Robert - tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you. Please stand. Thank you very much.


MCEVERS: The White House says these killings show why the U.S. needs tougher immigration laws, but critics say the administration is deliberately exploiting the tragedy to demonize immigrants, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: After Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens were beaten to death in 2016, their cases drew a huge amount of attention to Long Island. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump visited last year. When the president talks about MS-13, he often links the gang to the flood of migrant children from Central America who've arrived at the U.S. border without their parents. They've come by the tens of thousands seeking asylum. Here's another excerpt from last night's speech.


TRUMP: Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as illegal, unaccompanied alien minors and wound up in Kayla and Nisa's high school.

ROSE: More than 8,000 of these children have been resettled on Long Island, one of the largest communities of these kids anywhere in the country. But so far, law enforcement hasn't said whether Kayla and Nisa's alleged killers were among them. In fact, local law enforcement officials say less than 1 percent of these children are part of MS-13, and immigrant rights advocates say the majority of these kids left home because they were fleeing from gangs in the first place. Walter Barrientos is with Make the Road New York.

WALTER BARRIENTOS: This administration continues to use the tragedies and the crises that we are experiencing in this community for the sake of advancing their anti-immigrant agenda.

ROSE: Police on Long Island have been working closely with immigration authorities to round up suspected MS-13 members. They've arrested more than 200 suspected gang members in the past two years. But community advocates say undocumented immigrants who don't have ties to the gang are also getting caught in this dragnet.

PATRICK YOUNG: The community in general is just very, very frightened of the police.

ROSE: Patrick Young is with CARECEN, a nonprofit that works with the large Central American community on Long Island. He thinks the administration's heavy-handed response to MS-13 has been counterproductive.

YOUNG: Stigmatizing the community doesn't do anything to reduce crime. It just drives the community further away from public officials and undermines the efforts of churches and community groups to build strong relations between the community and the police.

ROSE: But local law enforcement officials dispute that. Timothy Sini is the former police commissioner and now district attorney in Suffolk County on Long Island.

TIMOTHY SINI: We are solving the crimes. We've cleared the vast majority of MS-13 homicides that have occurred. You know, oftentimes when you go to community meetings and you talk to the community, they want more.

ROSE: Sini says he's glad that the president is highlighting the brutality of MS-13 and sending resources to back up his talk. Late last year, the Suffolk County Police Department got a $500,000 grant to fight the gang. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. 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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