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On Long Island, Trump highlights violence from MS-13 gang to push Congress on immigration

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)

SELDEN, N.Y. — President Trump on Friday warned of an uptick in violence from the transnational gang MS-13 that he said exploited weak political leadership and immigration enforcement to terrorize communities as the White House launched a renewed push for Congress to beef up funding for border security measures.

Trump's visit to a county racked by violence attributed to the gang — 17 murders over 18 months, according to local police — aimed to give “power and poignancy” to his message that lawmakers must do more to combat illegal immigration” a White House aide told reporters in a briefing.

In stark language, Trump said MS-13 members have stabbed, raped and murdered young people and “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.” He added: “They’re animals. We cannot tolerate as a society the spilling of innocent, young, wonderful, vibrant people.”

President Trump, in a speech to law enforcement in New York on July 28, referred to MS-13 gang members as "animals" and pledged to "destroy" the gang. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump, who campaigned on a pledge to ramp up border security, has in recent months begun highlighting the threat from MS-13, whose formal name is La Mara Salvatrucha, a gang formed in Los Angeles decades ago with ties to El Salvador and Honduras.

Speaking Friday before an audience of law enforcement officers at Suffolk County Community College, Trump blamed past administrations for failing to enforce immigration laws.

“For many years, they exploited America’s weak borders and immigration enforcement,” Trump said of gangs such as MS-13. “They are there right now because of weak political leadership … and in many cases police who are not allowed to do their job because they have a pathetic mayor or a mayor who does not know what’s going on.”

A day after suffering a major political defeat on his bid to overturn the Affordable Care Act, when the Senate voted down a repeal measure, the president seemed buoyed during his return to Long Island, where he spent part of his youth. Trump spoke on stage in front of dozens of uniformed officers and a banner that read, “Protecting American lives.” He received numerous ovations as he thanked law enforcement officers for their service and pledged to create policies to allow them to do their jobs better. The officers at one point chanted, “USA! USA!”

Trump boasted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers are tougher than the criminal gangs, and at one point he encouraged police to be rougher with suspects who are apprehended, suggesting, for example, that they not protect suspects' heads while putting them into police cars.

Addressing illegal immigrants, Trump said: “We will find you, we will arrest you, we will jail you and we will deport you.”

Trump administration officials said they have begun implementing the president's directive to target MS-13 and other violent gangs and cartels. The Justice Department has requested funding for 300 additional federal prosecutors, said Rob Hur, the principal associate deputy attorney general, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions traveled this week to El Salvador to meet with officials from the Northern Triangle, including Honduras and Guatemala, in an effort to coordinate enforcement efforts.

Behind the rise in seemingly chaotic MS-13 violence: A structured hierarchy

Thomas Homan, the acting director of ICE who traveled here with Trump aboard Air Force One, said his agency has arrested 3,311 gang members this year, including 100 in New York, a majority of whom were affiliated with MS-13.

“Targeting, arresting and removing members of violent street gangs such as MS-13 sends a clear message to criminal enterprises around the world:  You are not welcome in the United States, and you'll find no harbor here,” Homan said.

Trump used his remarks to push Congress to boost funding for the administration's immigration crackdown, including the start of construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, 10,000 new ICE agents and 5,000 new Customs and Border Patrol officers. He also urged passage of laws to increase penalties on immigrants who enter the United States illegally, speed up deportations and penalize “sanctuary cities” that do not cooperate with federal immigration enforcement efforts.

The House approved legislation late Thursday that would allocate $1.6 billion to the wall, and administration officials said they will make a major push for that funding in budget deliberations with Congress over the coming months.

Yet immigrant rights advocates said the administration is inflating the dangers of illegal immigration to instill fear in the public as a way to build political support for its stricter policies.

In Trump’s first 100 days in office, ICE arrested 41,318 immigrants, up 37.6 percent over the same period last year. Almost 3 out of every 4 of those arrested have criminal records, including gang members and fugitives wanted for murder. But the biggest increase by far is among immigrants with no criminal records.

Also, many members of MS-13 are U.S. citizens and are under 18 years old.

Maria Teresa Kumar, chief executive of Voto Latino, said the comments from Trump and his aides are “simply an attempt to incite fear as a means to justify aggressive deportation efforts and costly border security policies. Their generalizations of our community are simply untrue. On the contrary, undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than the native-born population, and that gap continues to widen each year.”

Homan acknowledged that Trump had broadened the pool of undocumented immigrants considered a priority for removal, but he said the numbers are misleading because the Obama administration had sought to protect broad categories of immigrants from deportation. The numbers of non-criminals had fallen to such low levels, Homan said, that even a modest increase boosts the percentages.

Over the first 100 days of the Trump administration, 30,473 criminals were arrested from Jan. 22 to April 29, an 18 percent increase from the same period in 2016, according to ICE. Arrests of immigrants with no criminal records reached nearly 11,000, an increase of about 150 percent.

“If we send the message that if you get into the country, you get by the Border Patrol, and don't get arrested by local law enforcement for another crime, and no one is looking for you — that is a magnet; that is a pull factor,” Homan said. “We got to stop that messaging.  We got to tell people it's not okay to violate laws in this country.”