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Made in the USA: The Real History of the MS-13 Gang Trump Talked About in State of the Union

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During President Trump’s first State of the Union, he called on Congress to pass an immigration overhaul and repeatedly tried to conflate immigrants, including DREAMers, with terrorists and gang members. Among Trump’s guests to the State of the Union were the parents of two young girls who were killed by members of the MS-13 gang two years ago in Long Island, New York. MS-13 is a gang that originated in Los Angeles in the 1980s and has since spread to Central America as a result of the U.S. mass deportation policies. For more on the history of MS-13 and the United States’ relationship with El Salvador, we speak with Daniel Denvir, writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. His 2017 article for The Washington Post is titled “Deporting people made Central America’s gangs. More deportation won’t help.”

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In his State of the Union address, President Trump mentioned the MS-13 gang four times by name and told the story of the two young teenage girls who were murdered by members of the gang in Long Island. Let’s go to that part of the State of the Union.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: For decades, open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities. They’ve allowed millions of low-wage workers to compete for jobs and wages against the poorest Americans. Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.

Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens. Their two teenage daughters, Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, were close friends on Long Island. But in September 2016, on the eve of Nisa’s 16th birthday—such a happy time it should have been—neither of them came home. These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown. Six members of the savage MS-13 gang have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders. 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. …

Tonight I am calling on Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13 and other criminal gangs to break into our country.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Trump last night, as he talked about young people coming over the border and joining MS-13. Daniel Denvir is with us from Providence, Rhode Island, writer-in-residence at Harvard Law School’s Fair Punishment Project. Last year, he wrote an article for The Washington Post headlined “Deporting people made Central America’s gangs. More deportation won’t help.”

Daniel, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about one his—


AMY GOODMAN: —one of his central focuses last night, MS-13.

DANIEL DENVIR: I mean, political rhetoric around immigration so often functions to obscure the reality and history of immigration—though Trump is a rather extreme case. And what his obsessive focus on MS-13 does, aside from scapegoating and facilitating the mass criminalization of Latino immigrants in this country, is obscure the origins and reality of gangs like MS-13.

MS-13 was born in Los Angeles amidst the refugees fleeing President Reagan’s dirty wars in El Salvador, and became a transnational gang that ultimately did so much to destabilize El Salvador precisely because of deportation policies pursued by President Trump’s predecessors. This is a problem that’s American-made through and through. So, to treat it as though it’s some external threat being foisted on Americans, it not only entirely takes out of proportion and exaggerates the criminal threat that MS-13 poses to Americans, it obscures the fact that it’s our foreign policies, our military interventions and our long history—that, unfortunately, well precedes Donald Trump—of mass deportations and criminalization of immigrants, that created MS-13 in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk more about that, as you fully develop it in your piece, in your work, even why it’s called MS-13, but to explain that history, Daniel.

DANIEL DENVIR: Yeah. So, Mara Salvatrucha was formed in L.A. in the 1980s. Older viewers are probably fully aware, and many younger ones, as well, that in the 1980s President Reagan was backing a right-wing government in El Salvador that was waging a brutal dirty war against leftist revolutionaries in that country, that sent huge numbers of refugees fleeing to the U.S. He also had similar dirty wars in Guatemala, as well as a Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. But in the case of Salvadoran refugees fleeing to the U.S., Reagan made a point of denying that they were refugees, because how could his friendly government in El Salvador be sending refugees fleeing from their country if they weren’t committing massive human rights abuses? Which they were. And so, coming into segregated neighborhoods in the U.S., where, like many poor people of color in this country, they were denied access to good jobs and good schools, people gravitated—young people gravitated towards gangs, gangs that were a thoroughly American phenomenon at the time, not one that they were bringing with them from El Salvador.

And then, in the 1990s, Bill Clinton’s harsh anti-immigrant policy, which he was using as part of his general strategy of triangulation, attempting to placate rising right-wing, anti-immigrant sentiment, to ward off the right and consolidate white support in advance of—to advance his own political ambitions, launched a mass crackdown on so-called criminal aliens. And those same policies were followed by George W. Bush and also by Barack Obama. And the result was that enormous numbers of people have been deported to Central America, including El Salvador, some of them alleged gang members, many of them not. But those people being deported back into El Salvador brought Mara Salvatrucha and other gangs to that country and turned what was a homegrown L.A. phenomenon into a transnational criminal empire.

Again, Trump entirely exaggerates the criminal threat that MS-13 poses to the U.S., but those gangs have played a major role in wreaking incredible violence and destabilization in Central America, in El Salvador. And that violence, that destabilization, along with U.S.-backed mano dura crackdowns in the region, have pushed a new generation of refugees to come to the U.S. And now Trump has the gall to say that it’s this new generation of refugees, young, unaccompanied minors, who are a threat to us as Americans. I mean, it’s absurd. It’s offensive. And it’s, you know, an insult to history, because U.S. policy has created MS-13 through and through. I think, for Trump, it’s just a convenient way to scapegoat and facilitate the criminalization of ordinary immigrants, which is something that he has been doing since he announced his campaign and said that Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Maru Mora Villalpando, your response to that trajectory he made, the thread that wove through the fabric of his speech last night, young people coming over the border, MS-13, killing young women in Long Island, New York?

MARU MORA VILLALPANDO: Again, it’s just plain racist, hate rhetoric, that is trying to blame us for what [Daniel] just explained. There’s many different reasons why there’s violence in this country. He obviously left aside all the other violence that white people have generated in this country, a lot of terrorist acts, but a majority of them being done by white people in this country.

To me, it’s really, really offensive, too, that he—even the way he described children. We actually are working with a young man in the detention center in Tacoma. He’s being detained. He came from El Salvador precisely escaping gang violence. He came as a minor. And as soon as he turned 18, he was sent to the detention center. He already won his case. And the government, the U.S. government, decided to appeal his winning in court, in immigration court. And they still kept him in detention. He’s still detained, along with another young man that we’re working with, Manuel Abrego, that won his case, also from El Salvador, under the Convention Against Torture. The U.S. government appealed his case. He won back in November. He’s still detained right now in the detention center.

So, this is just another way of keeping us in detention, making sure that our bodies, our brown and black bodies, are being used for profiteering, for, in this case, GEO Group to make more money, and for ICE to claim that they are supposedly creating a safe environment for us, when what they’re doing is continuing destroying our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: As you talk about violence, I wanted to turn back to Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota state representative, the only Somali-American Muslim legislator in the country. Back in 2016, State Representative Omar, in Washington, D.C., you were attacked by a cab driver, who called you “Isis” and threatened to rip off your hijab as you were leaving a policy training at the White House. Shortly after the attack, you wrote on Facebook, quote, “the most hateful, derogatory, islamophobic, sexist taunts and threats I have ever experienced. … I am still shaken by this incident and can’t wrap my head around how bold [people] are becoming in displaying their hate towards Muslims.”

If you can talk about the atmosphere in this country over the last year? Of course, I couldn’t help noticing last night, in the chamber, as President Trump spoke, many of the African-American legislators, congressmembers, were wearing African kente cloth, whether it was scarves or bowties, whether it was ties. Ilhan Omar, your response?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: I mean, the rhetoric surrounding Muslims and Islam in this country has become a very dangerous one. When you sort of dehumanize and you normalize people’s ability to take a violent action against individuals because they don’t agree with the god they pray to or they don’t, you know, where a clothing that you might approve, it sort of—it starts us down a path that becomes very dangerous. And for our a lot of our young kids, in the schools, in workplaces, and just like I was, roaming around the streets in D.C., trying to do the work I was elected to do, you are faced with not only hate that comes in the form of verbally, but it gets very physical at times. And a lot of our communities are living in fear.

It’s the same thing with what’s happening around the conversation with immigrants. With all the lies that are being told by the president and the Republicans, we are forgetting that immigrants, in a lot of our communities, are contributing economically. They are making the cultures of those communities thrive. And they, you know, are not in that category of criminals, solely the contributors to criminal activity in this country, as the president makes it seem. I mean, if we think about our prison system, you know, over 10 percent of the American population is imprisoned, and it’s less than 5 percent of them are immigrants.

We don’t see a conversation, an outcry, about what to do when it comes to white men who are being radicalized, who are going into our schools, in our churches in our movie theaters, terrorizing our communities. There isn’t a plan. There isn’t a conversation. There isn’t an outrage. I didn’t hear a peep from the president last night about what he plans to do to keep Americans safe, so that they are able to go see a concert, so that they are able to feel comfortable sending their 5-year-olds, 7-year-olds and 10-year-olds to school.

And so, when we are thinking about what makes America great, what keeps our country safe, it’s about having a principled leader who is seen as someone who cares about and is going to work in collaboration with other world leaders and really talk about the values of this country. Far too long, I feel like, we’re letting fear drive our foreign policy. We’re letting fear drive our domestic policy. And that makes us away from the actual values and the leading with our morality that has gotten us to be the greatest nation in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: State Representative Ilhan Omar, the Virginia Democratic Congressman Bobby Scott tweeted, “Wearing kente cloth to the #SOTU with my fellow @OfficialCBC Members”—you know, Congressional Black Caucus members—”to stand in solidarity with people from you-know-what countries.” And I’m wondering if you, very quickly, before we go to break, could respond to that comment, as a Somali refugee, when President Trump made that comment about the continent of Africa, talking about these “s—hole countries,” and if it—what kind of blowback did you feel?

REP. ILHAN OMAR: Yeah, my home country is included in that bleep-hole countries. And I am proud, have never been ashamed, of where I come from. And I know that so many people have appreciated the fact that Africa and many of the countries within Africa are considered the birth of civilization. And we bring so much culture and enrichment to this world. And it is really important for people to have conversations about that and to not only stand in solidarity, but to also speak up and speak out about those kind of vulgar words that the president might use.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to go to break and come back to this roundtable discussion in response to President Trump’s State of the Union. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “If I was President” by Las Cafeteras, performing in Democracy Now!’s studios. To see our interview and their performances, go to democracynow.org.

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