President Donald Trump on Friday will visit a New York suburb traumatized by the violent street gang MS-13, which he has pledged to wipe out, but many in the Long Island community of Brentwood are wary of his motives.
The gang, which is largely Salvadoran, has killed 17 people here over the past year and a half.
Around 70 percent of the 60,000 people in Brentwood are Latinos, mainly from Central America, and many are living in the US illegally, without residency papers.
So they are as afraid, if not more afraid, of immigration authorities and the prospect of deportation as they are of the gang, whose initials stand for Mara Salvatrucha.
More than 20 community organizations in Brentwood, which is about 45 miles (70 kilometers) east of Manhattan, say that Trump’s visit is really a bid to stir up his political base and advance the part of his agenda that seeks robust deportation of unauthorized immigrants.
These groups staged a protest Thursday and say they will do so again Friday at the community college where Trump is scheduled to give a speech.
“I am outraged over the reasons why Trump is coming to Brentwood. He is using our tragedies to promote his agenda of hatred, to justify deportation and the separation of our families,” said Kevin, a Salvadoran who arrived in America on his own and without papers a year ago. He declined to give his last name.
Since 2014, some 8,000 undocumented minors like Kevin have arrived on Long Island, fleeing gang violence and poverty in Central America. Police say that after arriving, many are forcibly recruited by MS-13.
The gang originated among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s and then spread to Central America.
Today, it is estimated to have some 10,000 members in the United States and be present in 40 states. Authorities say it now has around 400 members on Long Island.
Activists in Brentwood and surrounding towns complain that the federal government has never even asked them what they need to tackle the street gang.
And they insist the answer is not to crack down more on immigrant communities but rather to improve the area’s money-starved public schools.
They say the government should also create more extra-curricular programs to keep kids off the street, rather than eliminate such programs as they say Trump wants to do.
“In Chicago, they are losing many more kids than they are here. Why come here? Why not go to Chicago? Why come here and not reach out to organizations that are actually working with gang-involved youth?” said Sergio Argueta, founder of Strong Youth Inc., an NGO that works with troubled youths in Long Island high schools.
“We are really afraid he is using this forum to be the billboard as to why anti-immigrant sentiment should exist in this country.”
– ‘He needs to look at my eyes’ –
Robert Mickens is pleased with Trump’s visit. His 15-year-old daughter Nisa was killed with blows from machetes and baseball bats last September in Brentwood along with a friend, Kayla Cuevas.
“His presence will show people he’s taken the issue very seriously. It should help,” Mickens, who is 40, told AFP.
Mickens says the authorities have not reached out to him.
But he says he would like Trump to visit him at home and see the photos of his daughter that fill the walls of his living room, and try to grasp the pain and emptiness that will haunt Mickens for the rest of his life.
“He needs to look at my eyes and see the pain that exists,” said Mickens. “He needs to see what was taken from us. She was smart, athletic — she had the heart of a queen.”
Local police say they have arrested more than 170 members of MS-13 since the death of the two teenage girls, including their suspected killers and those responsible for the killings of four other youths. Their dismembered bodies were found in April in a park in Central Islip, a town near Brentwood.
On the eve of his visit, Trump tweeted, “Big progress being made in ridding our country of MS-13 gang members and gang members in general.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited El Salvador on Thursday to discuss cooperation in the fight against violent street gangs.
Almost all of MS-13’s victims are undocumented Latinos.
“We need the cooperation of the community in order to solve these crimes,” said Phil Ramos, a Democratic member of New York’s state assembly who represents Brentwood and the surrounding area.
“A community fearing the terror of immigration raids will not come forward,” Ramos added.
Trump’s visit, he added, “will only hurt.”
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