No, MS-13 Isn’t “Infesting” America: Debunking Donald’s False Fear

According to President Trump’s Twitter feed, MS-13 is practically "infesting" every city in America. But police in cities where they operate beg to differ.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders stands in front of pictures of MS-13 gang tattoos during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, Thursday, July 27, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

If you were to go by President Trump’s words, the American Southwest is about to be overrun by less of a gang and more of a force of nature called Mara Salvatrucha, but far better known as MS-13. He claims the gang seized entire towns which were liberated by ICE, which is puzzling since rescuing occupied territory is usually the military’s job rather than that of a deportation force. And he attacked Democratic lawmakers as being sympathetic to MS-13 members while trying to equate asylum seekers with gang members and human traffickers in the minds of his base, a base which mostly lives in rural towns and suburbs, hardly hotbeds of gang activity.

But while Republican voters very much echo the klaxons about MS-13, major cities which do have gangs to contend with aren’t alarmed in the slightest. Why? Because despite their fearsome reputation, MS-13 is not making a major impact in America. It accounts for just 1% of all gang membership in the United States, has been stuck at 10,000 members for the last decade, and preys almost exclusively on undocumented immigrants. Traditional law enforcement has been able to get them under control not by turning to ICE, but with standard anti-gang policing tactics which only sometimes involved deportations since most of its members in America are natural born citizens and have been for generations.

In fact, MS-13 is an American export, founded in Los Angeles among Salvadoran immigrants in the 1980s trying to protect each other from bigger, already established gangs who saw them as easy prey. And they’re not in a hurry to game the immigration system to import more members either. According to the CBP, just 56 of nearly 250,000 unaccompanied minors who tried to enter the country since 2012 were suspected of being MS-13 recruits. Out of the 200 false family claims at the border this year, which account for just 1% of all families apprehended, none are thought to have ties to MS-13. This is in part why the idea that MS-13 members are trying to sneak past border guards is misguided. They don’t need to enter the country through mass deception. They were Americans all along.

But while one would think their continued presence in LA would be a constant threat, statistically, it’s far down the list of potential causes of death for the city’s residents. Last year, the murder rate was 7.6 per 100,000 residents, down 4.1% from the previous year, and nearly 70% from the “dark days” of the early 1990s. (By contrast, the most violent city in America, St. Lous, MO, saw over 59 murders per 100,000 people.) And if you aren’t involved with gangs or criminal activity in general, your odds of ending up with any gang member’s weapon pointed at you are roughly on par with winning the Powerball.

So if MS-13 is far from a constant threat to Americans, why is Trump trying to whip up fear and loathing of them across the nation instead of saluting law enforcement’s successful efforts to stun the gang’s one seemingly unstoppable growth? As many commentators have noted, he needs a villain to sell a crackdown on immigration despite the fact that border crossings have been at 40+ year lows years before he took office. Despite everything the data is telling them, they feel like America is being “invaded” and “infested,” to use their own words, and what the facts have to say isn’t going to get in the way of how they feel. Even if those facts point to us having the border under control with a system that was far from perfect, but also more humane and every bit as effective.

News // Donald Trump / Immigration / MS-13