BALTIMORE (CN) — Attracting protesters to his appearance in Baltimore, Attorney General Jeff Sessions railed against the Salvadoran street gang MS-13 on Tuesday and warned Americans of a crime wave.
“We must also recognize that transnational gangs like MS-13 have taken advantage of our porous southern border and previously lax immigration law enforcement,” Sessions said this morning, addressing reporters at the Maryland offices of Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning.
As he has in similar talks across the country, Sessions focused his speech on the Justice Department’s prioritization of the MS-13 gang, noting that authorities here and in Northern Virginia arrested 38 individuals in October and November.
Crediting his office’s enforcement of the laws as they were written, Sessions said border crossings are at their lowest level in 45 years.
“Ending illegal immigration is not hopeless,” the attorney general said.
“We can do it,” he added.
The attorney general faced criticism, however, from four protesters outside the press conference this morning.
“Sessions came all the way to Baltimore to make his announcement, when the violent crime being committed here isn’t being committed by MS-13 gang members,” Baltimore resident Owen Silverman Andrews said in an interview.
The attorney general’s appearance this morning comes as Baltimore is on track to surpass a city record on total homicides. With 327 murders to date this year, the Baltimore Sun reported that the old record occurred in 1993 when there were 353 killings.
Sessions spoke about Baltimore’s murder rate as well, but the examples of MS-13 violent crime he quoted occurred much closer to the country’s capital.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics released its estimates on crimes from 2016 just last week, and Sessions said the numbers “show violence like we haven’t seen in nearly a quarter of a century.
“The rate of Americans victimized by violent crime is up more than 13 percent,” Sessions said.
FBI statistics about 2016 crimes came out in September. Though the report did show a small uptick in violent crime — defined as murders, rapes, robberies and aggravated assaults — the number of violent crime in the United States remains well below the level of 1.42 million reported a decade ago, when the rate was 471 violent crimes for every 100,000 people in the country.
Researchers at the Brennan Center for Justice meanwhile have estimated that the U.S. crime rate will dip by 1.8 percent this year if current trends hold, reaching its second-lowest level since 1990.
Disputing the White House’s account of a nationwide surge in violence, the researchers have also found that the bumps in crime remain concentrated in small parts of the country. As the Brennan Center found in a preliminary analysis of the data, for example, Chicago accounted for 20 percent of the overall increase in murders last year.
Sessions was joined at Monday’s press conference by Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen.
Confirmed to her post just one week ago by the Senate, Nielsen said her office will be hiring 10,000 more agents to strengthen U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The president has been outspoken that more has to be done to keep our country safe,” Nielsen said.
“Unless we make immigration policy and enforcement a priority MS-13 is a cancer that will continue to grow,” she added.
For some of protesters, the government’s rhetoric smacks of fear mongering.
“Sessions is just using the MS-13 issue as a shield to deflect from his other actions as attorney general,” said Erin Ewald of Baltimore.
Fellow protester Silverman Andrews questioned what evidence the government has to support its claim that immigration enforcement will curb violent crime.
“MS-13 was started in Los Angeles and deportations just moved to the problem to another country where it was able to incubate, get more established and just return to this country,” Silverman Andrews said.