President Trump and his administration have repeatedly blamed a streak of violence by members of the notorious MS-13 gang "in cities across the US" on undocumented immigrants, but federal data show they only play a minor role in growing the ranks of gangs overall.
There is no comprehensive database that tracks how many MS-13 gang members in the US are undocumented. But the two main federal agencies tasked with monitoring those entering the US, either legally as resettled refugees, or illegally crossing the border from Mexico, say just a small fraction have ties to any gang activity when they cross over.
Of the 2,371 minors under the care of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, just 39 — or about 1.6% — were identified as gang members, according to a survey the agency conducted on June 9. Four of those gang members were forced into joining, a spokeswoman for the office told BuzzFeed News.
The acting chief of US Customs and Border Protection (CPB), Carla Provost, recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee that of the 250,000 unaccompanied minors detained by her officers, 160 — or .06% — have been identified as having gang ties.
Those children, mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, have claimed to be escaping violence in their home countries, often at the hands of MS-13 gang members, she added.
Trump's preoccupation with MS-13 appears to have been sparked by a series of gruesome killings earlier this year in Suffolk County, Long Island, where the gang is far less entrenched than in Texas and California. In September, two girls were found beaten to death, and in April, the badly beaten bodies of four men were also found in a wooded area. MS-13 is suspected of being behind the killings.
Not long after, Trump publicly called out MS-13 gang in a tweet, blaming its supposed rise on illegal immigration.
Since then, nearly every mention of the deadly criminal organization by the president or anyone in his administration has been paired with talk of illegal immigration, building a wall along the US-Mexico border, increasing deportations, or cracking down on so-called sanctuary cities.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled to Central Islip, New York, on April 28 and promised federal resources to fight the gang. The first suggestion offered by the attorney general in the fight: "securing our borders and restoring a lawful system of immigration."
A series of sweeps and operations targeting MS-13 followed.
Started in the 1980s in Los Angeles by El Salvador immigrants who had fled the civil war, MS-13 members brought their military experience and gained a reputation as a violent, ruthless organization. Their signature weapon of choice remains the machete.
A deportation-focused tactic to dismantle the gang, also known as Marasalvatrucha, allowed it to take root back in El Salvador and since then, the gang has spread to Guatemala, Mexico, and across the US as cliques. In 2012, MS-13 became the first, and so far only, gang to be designated as a "transnational criminal organization."
But despite multiple hearings in Congress this year, including one the Senate Judiciary Committee held on June 21 titled, "The MS-13 Problem: Investigating Gang Members, It's Nexus to Illegal Immigration and the Federal Efforts to End the Threat," lawmakers have uncovered only a small link.
Overall, Border Patrol agents have stopped more than 1.5 million immigrants coming in from Mexico since 2012, and of those, 5,000 people — or about .3% — were found to be tied to a gang, Provost said at the hearing.
Even Suffolk Police Commissioner Timothy Sini, whose county apparently piqued Trump's interest, told Congress that MS-13 has had limited success with recruiting immigrants.
During a recent law enforcement sweep, he told BuzzFeed News that 150 MS-13 members were arrested. Of those, about 40 were found to have entered the US as an unaccompanied minor.
That's a small portion of the 4,624 unaccompanied minors resettled in Suffolk County in roughly three years.
Still, he's asking Congress for additional resources to tackle the gang with federal charges, as well as better vetting of sponsors for the immigrant children.
"We need to provide funding to provide support for these children," he said, "because if we don't, MS-13 will."
Salvador Hernandez is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles.
Contact Salvador Hernandez at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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