As thousands of protesters gathered across the country to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and the chorus of voices calling to abolish ICE grows, the president is going on the offensive. He’s warning of an America overrun by MS-13 — an America that doesn’t exist.
Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy and his administration’s increasingly aggressive actions have energized a progressive push to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). On Thursday hundreds of women protested in Washington against the separation of migrant families and called for the end of ICE. And multiple Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, have joined in. A group of nearly 20 ICE investigators has called for the agency to be abolished, reformed, or restructured, and “abolish ICE” was a rallying cry at Saturday’s Families Belong Together marches across the country.
Trump is pushing back on the anti-ICE statements, in part by invoking MS-13 and warning that the gang might take over the country — or already has.
In a tweet on Saturday morning, the president lauded ICE agents as “one of the smartest, toughest, and most spirited law enforcement groups of men and women that I have ever seen.” He then inexplicably said that he has “watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13” and “clean out the toughest of situations.”
The Democrats are making a strong push to abolish ICE, one of the smartest, toughest and most spirited law enforcement groups of men and women that I have ever seen. I have watched ICE liberate towns from the grasp of MS-13 & clean out the toughest of situations. They are great!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 30, 2018
In an interview with Fox Business host Maria Barroom that was set to air on Sunday, Trump said ICE agents “take [MS-13] out” and they’re “much tougher than MS-13” by a “factor of 10.” He warned that if ICE is abolished, MS-13 will overrun the country to the point that “you’re going to be afraid to walk out of your house.”
Yashar Ali, a writer for New York magazine and HuffPost, previewed the remarks on Twitter.
MS-13 is not taking over the United States
A Salvadoran-American gang, MS-13 has a presence in several US cities, including Los Angles, New York, Boston, and Washington. Despite Trump’s claim last year that MS-13 had “literally taken over towns and cities,” no US municipalities are ruled by the gang. And none have been “liberated” from it.
Trump and Republicans have used MS-13 as a proxy for demonizing of immigrants and give it outsize importance in relation to its true impact. As Vox’s Dara Lind has explained, MS-13 hasn’t reversed nationwide trends of declining violent crime (even in areas where its presence is strongest), and the gang has only about 10,000 members in the United States — a tiny fraction of the estimated 1.4 million gang members in the nation.
The president has sought to cast immigrants as violent and dangerous criminals who pose an imminent threat to the US. Just last week the White House held an event highlighting families who have lost loved ones to crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants — and including bizarre autographing of photos of victims.
It’s a recurring pattern for Trump: He holds up extreme actors of a certain religious or ethnic background and treats them as representative of their group, in order to stoke fears and justify restrictive immigration policies. In January the White House released a report attempting to tie immigration to terrorism. And the president has been quick to blame Muslims for terror attacks, but he has been slower to speak out when the perpetrators are not Muslim.
Trump’s approach is the the same for the immigrants arriving at the US-Mexico border: He’s warning that America would be lost without ICE and overrun by a gang — one that couldn’t fill even the smallest NFL stadium.