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President Trump’s claim that ‘thousands and thousands’ of MS-13 members are off the streets

President Trump says the United States is moving gang members out of the country “by the thousands," but current records suggest otherwise. (Video: Meg Kelly, Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“We have sent thousands and thousands of MS-13 horrible people out of this country or into our prisons.”
— President Trump, State of the Union address, Jan. 30, 2018

“This is after, actually, removing thousands of them out — some into the prisons — but literally thousands of people are removed out.”
— Trump, discussing MS-13 during a roundtable at the White House, Feb. 6, 2018

This is a new twist on Trump’s well-worn claim that his administration is deporting thousands of members of the violent MS-13 gang. We gave the president Two Pinocchios in June because MS-13 removals were in the hundreds, not the thousands, under his watch.

Whereas Trump referred only to deportees in his previous remarks, his claim has now expanded to include MS-13 members “in our prisons.” That tweak caught our attention, since it’s a big one.

Has the Trump administration taken “thousands and thousands” of MS-13 members off the streets, whether by deporting or imprisoning them?

The Facts

“La Mara Salvatrucha,” or MS-13, is a violent gang formed by Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s and now run out of El Salvador. According to the Justice Department, MS-13 has grown to 30,000 members worldwide, 10,000 of them in the United States. By the Justice Department’s count, 7,000 members are clustered in three areas: Long Island, Los Angeles and the Washington region.

MS-13 is known for its gory violence — experts say the gang favors edged weapons such as machetes and knives — and both Trump and the Justice Department have been describing their crimes in detail to make the case for tighter immigration restrictions and a new wall along the southern border.

“The stories about people getting their hands cut off, decapitated, are real,” said David M. Kennedy, an expert on law enforcement and gangs at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. MS-13 members pose a problem in the cities where they are most active, Kennedy added, but the gang is “not that organized” and “as a national matter, they don’t feature very much.”

They do feature prominently in the White House narrative. Before Trump brought it up in the State of the Union, he claimed that MS-13 had “infiltrated our schools” (April 29); that authorities had removed “50 percent” of MS-13 members in the United States, or 6,000 of them (June 29); and that “we’re throwing them out so fast; they never got thrown out of anything like this” (Aug. 22). Trump signed an executive order in February 2017 that prioritizes law enforcement efforts against “transnational criminal organizations,” a designation that includes MS-13.

For this fact-check, we’re going to review figures from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Justice Department and the government of El Salvador.

But first, two important caveats: No U.S. agency reports how many MS-13 members are deported by the United States each year. Similarly, there is no nationwide database of MS-13 members imprisoned at the state or local levels, where the vast majority of crimes are prosecuted. (There are some figures for total gang convictions at the federal level, but they’re not broken down by specific gang.)

With that in mind, we’re going to dispense with the formalities and say that there’s no way to verify Trump’s latest claims based on the data — because there are no reliable data. Instead, we’re going to evaluate some related information to see whether the president’s claim could be accurate, at least in theory.

ICE data

A White House official pointed us to Operation Community Shield, an initiative from ICE Homeland Security Investigations that began during the George W. Bush administration. Homeland Security Investigations since 2005 has attained “more than 61,000 gang-related arrests; more than 8,100 of those being members or associates of MS-13,” according to an ICE news release from November.

There’s no breakdown of those 8,100 arrests that shows how many were of U.S. citizens or how many predated Trump. But in May, ICE was reporting 7,300 MS-13 arrests since 2005, so we could assume an additional 800 members or associates of MS-13 were arrested from May to November.

A six-week gang surge in May was the largest to date for Homeland Security Investigations, ending with 1,378 arrests. From that total, 104 individuals were affiliated with MS-13. A separate operation in November led to 214 MS-13 arrests in the United States.

ICE deported 2,057 gang members in fiscal year 2016, said Danielle Bennett, a spokeswoman for ICE, and 5,396 in fiscal year 2017, a 162 percent increase. Gang members went from 0.9 percent of total deportees to 2.4 percent year over year. But it’s not evident how many of these deportees were associated with MS-13.

“While ICE does not track gang removals by specific gang, ICE does specifically target MS-13 members for arrest and removal on the basis of their immigration violations, enabling these public safety threats to be removed from the communities they are victimizing and returned to their home countries,” Bennett said. “These removals include foreign fugitives who are wanted for crimes committed abroad and are removable under U.S. immigration law.”

A separate set of ICE data shows that Homeland Security Investigations made 432 MS-13 arrests in fiscal year 2016 and 796 arrests in fiscal year 2017, an 84 percent increase. That includes U.S. citizens, Bennett said.

These numbers from ICE show a clear surge in law enforcement activity targeting MS-13 since Trump took office, but they don’t show that “thousands and thousands” of the gang’s members have been deported or imprisoned under Trump’s watch. Rather, they continue to show something in the “hundreds and hundreds” ballpark.

Justice Department data

We also reached out to the Justice Department. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and other officials have echoed Trump’s remarks about MS-13 and have mentioned “thousands” of enforcement cases against this gang.

A Justice Department spokesman pointed us to Operation Regional Shield. According to an announcement from Sessions in September, “more than 3,800 MS-13 and 18th Street gang members in the United States and Central America” were charged by the United States or the top prosecutors in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Most of those defendants were charged outside the United States. Sessions said more than 70 of the MS-13 and 18th Street gang defendants “were living in the United States.” His announcement specifically referenced 18 defendants in the United States affiliated with MS-13.

The Justice Department also pointed us to an announcement from Salvadoran authorities. In July, they charged 113 MS-13 members in one day, and 593 gang members, including an unspecified number of MS-13 members, the day before. (There’s no indication that these people were ever in the United States or tried to immigrate.)

In total, the Justice Department got convictions in the United States for 1,200 gang members in 2017, John Cronan, the acting assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division, said at a White House briefing Feb. 6. (Not all of them were MS-13 members.)

“What they’re saying about MS-13 in terms of its meaning in the United States is dramatically incorrect,” Kennedy said of the Trump administration. He added, “In most cities when you talk to people who deal with gangs and violent crime, MS-13 simply never comes up.”

El Salvador data

The number of deportees returning to El Salvador dropped 50 percent in 2017, from 52,938 to 26,828, according to the Salvadoran government. However, deportees identified as gang members more than doubled, going from 524 to 1,241. (These figures include all countries, although the United States and Mexico send the most deportees.)

The most recent snapshot from the government of El Salvador shows that in January 2018, roughly 1,090 Salvadorans were deported from the United States, of which 240, or 22 percent, had criminal records. This figure includes both gang and non-gang deportees.

The Pinocchio Test

A range of data shows Trump’s crackdown on MS-13 has had a discernible impact. But there’s nothing showing that “thousands and thousands” of the gang’s members have been deported or imprisoned since the president took office.

At most, there were 1,241 deportees with gang ties who re-entered El Salvador in 2017, according to that country’s government. Meanwhile, according to a patchwork of reports from ICE and the Justice Department, several hundred MS-13 members were arrested or charged in the United States in 2017.

It’s important to keep in mind that in many cases, an arrest does not lead to a conviction. There is no database that tallies MS-13 prisoners at the state and local levels, where most crimes are prosecuted. At the federal level, the Justice Department reported 1,200 total convictions for gang members in 2017.

The facts do not support Trump’s repeated assertions that “thousands” of MS-13 members have been removed since he took office. Because the president has insisted with this claim, rejiggering it several times without making it accurate, we are upgrading it from Two to Three Pinocchios.

Three Pinocchios

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Three Pinocchios
"We have sent thousands and thousands of MS-13 horrible people out of this country or into our prisons."
State of the Union address, Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, January 30, 2018