CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) — Accused of immigrant-bashing by the throngs of protesters who turned out for his speech Friday, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions held up the old administration’s border policies as the root of gang violence on Long Island.
“This is the Trump era, so you can be confident that this nation’s leadership has your back,” Sessions told a roomful of reporters this morning.
One day shy of Trump’s 100th day in office, Sessions selected the Central Islip federal courthouse, about 50 miles outside New York City Hall, as the site for his talk on MS-13.
The Mara Salvatrucha, as they are otherwise known, trace back to El Salvador’s brutal civil war. After the conflict dragged on for 10 years, fueled in part by President Ronald Reagan’s military aid to Salvadoran death squads, the United States became home to a large percentage of the war’s estimated 500,000 refugees.
Co-founded in Los Angeles by a soldier of that war, MS-13 has become an international criminal organization whose estimated 30,000 members have operations in the drug trade, contract killing, money laundering and arms trafficking.
“The MS-13 motto is kill, rape and control,” Sessions told reporters.
“Our motto,” he added, “will be justice for victims and consequences for criminals.”
Earlier this month, MS-13 members were suspected in the murders of two teenage girls beaten to death with baseball bats and a machete.
Sessions referred to that crime and others in his speech, delivered at the same courthouse where federal prosecutors obtained a guilty plea from MS-13 member Arnolvin Umanzor Velasquez for his participation in the 2012 execution-style murder of two brothers in Brentwood, a Latino-majority hamlet known as “The Jewel of Long Island.”
Though wary of MS-13’s grip, the roughly a hundred protesters outside the courtroom showed little patience for any exploitation of that issue to push an anti-immigration agenda.
“I think it’s going to be politics,” said Patrick Young, the program director of the local organization Central American Refugee Center. “He hasn’t shown any sensitivity toward the community.”
Even with Supreme Court precedent on their side, Young noted that local schools make it enrollment difficult for the 8,000 refugee children his Brentwood group serves.
Angela Ramos, from the organization Long Island Women of Vision Coalition, echoed that concern.
“The majority of [immigrants] are coming here to work, to go to school and to help the family,” Ramos said. “That’s why I am here. This is not an immigration issue. This is a problem with this 1 percent, not the majority of the kids coming here to school and better their lives.”
Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from nearby Nassau County, hinted at these complexities on Twitter, where she urged Sessions to engage with immigrant communities.
Sessions’ strategy for tackling MS-13 offered no room for social services or outreach for immigrant communities, only brute force and threats of deportation.
“Long-term success against such transnational criminal organizations requires securing our borders and restoring a lawful system of immigration,” Sessions said. “We must also dismantle the human smuggling networks that operate along our nation’s southern border.”
Just this week, the Department of Homeland Security launched a new phrase of Trump’s immigration policy: the Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE) hotline, inviting citizens to call in reports of crimes by what they called “illegal aliens.”
Likened to Nazi propaganda about Jewish crimes, VOICE has been criticized for creating the false image that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than naturalized citizens.
The backlash to the program has been immediate: Various news outlets have reported on the flood of prank calls about UFOs and extraterrestrial aliens the line has received, but Suffolk County Latinos are not laughing.
Twenty minutes outside the courthouse in the bayside town of Patchogue is where a group of teenagers killed Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero on Nov. 8, 2008.
Because the murder called attention to other hate crimes against Latino immigrants ignored by local law enforcement, Suffolk County police have been under federal court monitoring for the past four years.
The attorney general emphasized today that he wants an end to that kind of federal scrutiny.
“I have made clear that this Department of Justice will not sign consent decrees that will cost more lives by handcuffing the police instead of criminals and stopping lawful police procedures that have been proven to reduce crime,” Sessions said.
This allusion spoke to a memorandum Sessions issued on March 22, calling for U.S. attorneys across the country to review federal consent decrees on local law-enforcement agencies.
Suffolk had been set to conclude its three-year monitoring in January before the Department of Justice opted to continue prosecutorial oversight in one of the final acts of President Barack Obama’s administration.
By press time, Sessions’ Department of Justice did not confirm his plans for the Long Island decree, which remains active.
Should he rescind it, immigrants here may find themselves bracing for the return of what extremism watchdogs at the Southern Poverty Law Center called a “Climate of Fear,” the title of their 2009 report. The paper depicts local police and politicians as aloof to and sometimes complicit in crimes against the immigrant community.
Deportation concerns make many immigrants reluctant to report crimes against them, but those who do speak out say they have being shot with BB guns, driven off the road on their bicycles, and targeted in arson attacks.
For the advocacy group Make the Road, which has offices in nearby Brentwood, Sessions’ visit rubs old wounds.
“Suffolk County residents have lived through what happens when divisive politicians try to turn us against each other,” the group said in a statement.
For Phil Hennings, a 27-year-old volunteer from Smithtown, MS-13 had been a tactic for Sessions to push what he called a racist and xenophobic mindset.
“No one questions when you’re going after a gang, because obviously gangs are bad,” he said. “They’re violent. They commit crimes, and they’re bad for communities. So, no one’s going to question it, and for him, this MS-13 gang speech, he’s promoting his views and his views and his agenda in an unquestionable way.”
Standing at Sessions’ side throughout the speech, Rep. Peter King has also been accused of using public safety to push discriminatory policies.
King made national headlines by holding hearings over what he called the radicalization of Muslims in the United States, an investigation its critics described as a religious witch hunt.
King called Friday’s protest of the attorney general “shameful” and “disgraceful.”
“What would they say if he didn’t come?” King asked. “‘He doesn’t care about Central Islip. He doesn’t care about New York.’”
Sessions plans to meet this afternoon with Suffolk law enforcement, along with the families of Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, two of the victims killed by MS-13.
With MS-13 believed to be headquartered in Salvadoran prisons, tackling the group will also take diplomacy.
Sessions kept a sunny outlook on the U.S.-Salvadoran partnership, announcing a tour there and throughout Central America, starting today, by Justice Department officials.
“We’ve had good relations with their government,” he said. “They’ve been cooperative with us.”
Diplomatic resources, however, will be more scarce. The Trump administration has cut the State Department’s funding by 28 percent, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced a plan to cut 2,300 jobs within the department on Friday.
The attorney general will return to Washington this afternoon.