Walter Barrientos, 32, is Long Island organizing director for Make the Road New York, an immigrants rights group based in the same town where Trump gave his speech. He’s worked with a lot of people impacted by MS-13 violence over the years and believes economic problems are the primary factors driving young Latino men and women to join the gang—not a lust for violence. Many of those who join the gang are the children of law-abiding, legal immigrant parents, he said.
“Ultimately, you have kids susceptible to gang recruitment because of disenfranchisement and disconnection from society in Suffolk,” Barrientos told me. “You have someone in high school and their parents, who may be of Central American origin, work two or three low-wage jobs to make ends meet. So, they’re never home to supervise them.”
Barrientos is careful to note he believes immigrants in Suffolk have a fraught relationship with authority due to racial discrimination that long predates Trump’s political ascent. He would know: His family came to Long Island from Guatemala when he was 11 years old in hopes of escaping the gang violence that had consumed their neighborhood back home, he said.
“My analysis of the situation is that this is less of a gang problem in Suffolk than it is a growing disconnect between immigrants and the police,” Barrientos said. “Immigrants want to trust the police on Long Island, but they keep getting let down.”
Since 2013, the feds have been keeping tabs on Suffolk police after finding evidence of systemic violence against Hispanic people in the area. But when it comes to allegations of discrimination in traffic stops, for example, tension has persisted. Barrientos recalled the case of Sergeant Scott Greene, an ex-cop convicted just last year of stealing cash from immigrants during traffic stops. He said Suffolk PD ignores community fears about anti-immigrant vigilantism, concerns that were perhaps most dramatically stoked by the murder of Marcelo Lucero in a train station parking lot in Patchogue back in 2008. Four teens were convicted of a hate crime following the incident, which helped draw the federal scrutiny in the first place. But subsequent episodes of prejudice, Barrientos said, have stoked tension that might lead some locals to be vulnerable to exploitation by MS-13.
“It is unfortunate, and also insulting, that the message the president gave here confirmed what many people in community already fear about law enforcement,” he told me.
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