BETHPAGE, N.Y. — President Trump and his top administration officials repeatedly warned Wednesday that unaccompanied migrant children arriving at the southern border are potentially exposing the nation to eventual gang crime.
Immigrant advocates have long said that the children, primarily from Central America, are fleeing violence in their home countries and seeking safe harbor in the United States. But the Trump administration has used their plight to justify cracking down on policies that allow these migrants to be released and obtain hearings before immigration judges, rather than being deported immediately.
“We have the worst immigration laws of any country, anywhere in the world,” Trump said at the roundtable held at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center. “They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”
Trump added: “They look so innocent. They’re not innocent.”
The event, open only to local media and a small group of traveling pool reporters, continued a familiar theme for Trump in highlighting violent acts committed by immigrants and calling for tougher enforcement measures to clamp down on crime.
Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein detailed a gang “resurgence” that he said he witnessed firsthand as the U.S. attorney for Maryland. That rise, Rosenstein said, was “fueled” by illegal immigration and “particularly the challenge of unaccompanied minor children.”
The issue is compounded, Rosenstein said, by the fact that these migrant children must eventually be released from detention, and many never show up for their immigration proceedings before a judge. Rosenstein, quoting statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, said less than 4 percent of unaccompanied minors are ultimately removed from the United States.
“We’re letting people in who are creating problems. We’re letting people in who are gang members. We’re also letting people in who are vulnerable,” Rosenstein said. Because many of the migrant children lack families or a similar support system, they become “vulnerable to [gang] recruitment,” the deputy attorney general said,
Thomas Homan, the departing deputy director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said about 300 arrests related to the MS-13 gang were made on Long Island last year. Of those arrested, more than 40 percent entered the United States as unaccompanied minors, he said.
“So it is a problem,” Homan said. “There is a connection.”
Other federal statistics paint a somewhat different tale. From October 2011 until June of last year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials arrested about 5,000 individuals with confirmed or suspected gang ties, according to congressional testimony from the agency’s acting chief, Carla Provost, in June.
Of the 5,000 figure, 159 were unaccompanied minors, Provost testified, and 56 were suspected or confirmed to have ties with MS-13. In that overall time frame, CBP apprehended about 250,000 unaccompanied minors, according to Provost.
This terrain — both the location and the subject matter — is familiar territory. Trump traveled to nearby Selden last July with a similar message of MS-13 wreaking havoc in communities across America. Here on Long Island, the transnational gang has been blamed for more than two dozen deaths in the last two years, according to radio station WNYC.
The gang, formally known as La Mara Salvatrucha, has roots in Los Angeles and ties to Central American countries including El Salvador and Honduras. John P. Cronan, an acting assistant attorney general, said Wednesday that about 2,000 MS-13 members are on Long Island.
Trump has ramped up his focus on immigration and gang violence in recent days, most notably in another roundtable at the White House last week when he described undocumented immigrants who commit violent crimes as “animals.”
He also blasted Libby Schaaf, the Democratic mayor of Oakland, Calif., who tipped off residents to a federal immigration enforcement raid in February. Trump said her move was tantamount to “obstruction of justice” that allowed undocumented immigrants to escape before the raid.
Trump again called the gang members “animals” during Wednesday’s roundtable.
“I called them animals the other day, and I was met with rebuke,” he said. “They said, ‘They’re people.’ They’re not people. These are animals, and we have to be very, very tough.”
Throughout his campaign and his presidency, Trump has consistently used the threat of violence committed by immigrants to push Congress for tougher security measures, such as a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and punishments for local law enforcement officials who decline cooperation with federal immigration authorities.
But his critics say Trump is unfairly conflating crime from a smaller subset of immigrants with the broader undocumented population.
Several dozen protesters gathered a few blocks from where Trump hosted the roundtable in Bethpage, holding signs that read “No Hate, No Racism, No Trump” and “Long Island is #UnitedAgainstHate.” One woman carried a sign that read: “Keep your tiny hands off my rights.”
“We think it’s shameful that they’re using the rhetoric of calling us animals, whether it’s animals, rapists or calling the countries that we come from a shithole country,” said Walter Barrientos, the Long Island organizing director for Make the Road New York, an immigrant advocacy group. “It just becomes an excuse to vilify and dehumanize people in our countries.”
Rodman Serrano, 23, from Bay Shore, is a U.S. citizen whose parents are the beneficiaries of temporary protected status, a provisional residency given to immigrants from countries that have suffered war or other catastrophes. The administration announced in January it would end TPS for immigrants from El Salvador.
“I take it very personally,” he said of Trump’s rhetoric toward immigrants. “I’m proud to be the son of Salvadoran immigrants. And to hear our president refer to us as animals, as criminals, as gang members, I take it personally.”
Trump backers also showed up to counter the immigrant-rights protesters, whose ranks numbered around 100 earlier Thursday, according to organizers. Deborah Getz, 64, from Brookhaven, said she came out to support Trump because “we have a voice, too.”
“We know the president cares about this country, he loves this country, he stands up for the Constitution,” Getz said. “We’re not against immigrants. We’re against illegal immigration.”