The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Deporting people made Central America’s gangs. More deportation won’t help.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to go after international gangs. Will it only make the problem worse? (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

On Wednesday, pursuant to the indictment of 17 alleged gang members and associates for killings and other crimes in Long Island, the Department of Justice released a statement trumpeting the administration’s crackdown on what has become the nation’s most talked-about criminal enterprise.

“MS-13 is one of the most vicious criminal gangs in this country today,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “As I said when I visited Long Island after these murders took place in April, MS-13’s motto may be ‘kill, rape and control,’ but the Department of Justice’s motto is justice for victims and consequences for criminals.” In April, Sessions made a stop on his immigrants-are-killing-Americans tour in Long Island, where he went further into his view of transnational gangs.

Sessions is right that MS-13 is violent and that it is transnational in reach, with a presence stretching from the streets and brutal, overcrowded prisons of El Salvador, across Central America and Mexico, to Los Angeles and the D.C. area. But his insistence that an immigration crackdown will keep Americans safe is either a lie or an expression of ignorance. In reality, it is U.S. foreign policy and the very sort of deportation policies Sessions embraces that have created the “horrific violence” and “lawlessness” he expresses concern about, and there’s no reason to believe that continuing these policies will do anything other than cause more harm.

MS-13 gains recruits and power in U.S. as teens surge across border

The gang Sessions pinpointed, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), was founded in Los Angeles, as was its rival, Barrio 18. Many of the youths who formed MS-13, and who joined its rival Barrio 18 (initially formed by Mexicans) had fled El Salvador as refugees as civil war raged between 1980 and 1992. At the time, the right-wing military government in El Salvador was backed by President Ronald Reagan’s administration. All in all, the U.S. spent billions of dollars on its dirty war against left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FLMN. Wars were also ripping apart Guatemala, where the U.S.-backed military committed genocide against indigenous people, and Nicaragua, where the U.S. supported a Contra army that sought to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista government because it had dared to depose the right-wing Somoza family dictatorship.

In El Salvador, the U.S.-backed government and allied death squads routinely committed human rights violations, including massacres and torture, causing a mass exodus. The Reagan administration refused to recognize that people fleeing its Cold War-era wars were refugees, however, and deported many. But the Salvadoran-born population nonetheless nearly quintupled between 1980 and 1990, rising from 94,000 to 465,000, as militant activists, religious and otherwise, mobilized to provide them sanctuary.

When Salvadoran refugees arrived in the U.S., some of the young people, living in poor segregated neighborhoods, gravitated toward gangs for protection and camaraderie. As a result, many were targeted for deportation back to El Salvador. It was there, strangers in a native land they barely knew, that criminal enterprises became cross-border operations unleashing a wave of murder and intimidation. (The picture of a tightly organized transnational gang can no doubt be an exaggerated one: MS-13, which has now split into two rival factions, and Barrio 18 are horizontal and highly decentralized, and researchers have found that the gangs’ interests are often parochial ones relating to local drug distribution and extortion rackets.)

That violence, and the Salvadoran government’s U.S.-backed strategy to arrest and shoot its way out of the problem, has driven yet another generation of Central American migrants fleeing north. In fiscal 2014, the Border Patrol apprehended almost 137,000 unaccompanied minors and individuals traveling with their families, the majority part of a new refugee exodus from Central America to seek asylum from violent conflicts between gangs and governments in their deeply impoverished native lands.

Are MS-13 members really being deported by the thousands?

Since the Reagan administration, immigration enforcement has been framed as a key law enforcement tool, and the deportation of people convicted of crimes became a more expansive and increasingly routinized process. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility law, which made it far easier for the government to deport people convicted of certain crimes, including relatively minor ones and crimes committed by lawful permanent residents. At the same time, the INS Violent Gang Task Force, created in 1992, was working with local police to target immigrant gang members for deportation. In 2005, ICE’s Operation Community Shield was launched to target MS-13.

The upshot was that deportees to El Salvador and its neighbors in Central America’s northern triangle, Guatemala and Honduras, arrived in war-torn, unstable countries whose conditions helped to perpetuate a legacy of U.S.-fomented violence.

Since taking office, President Trump has proclaimed that his government is “actually liberating towns” from the gang’s clutches and falsely claimed that he has deported half of the gang’s U.S.-based membership. He has blamed “weak illegal immigration policies” under President Barack Obama for allowing the gang to spread, calling it “a serious problem” that “we never did anything about.” In fact, deporting alleged gang members had been a bipartisan priority for three presidential administrations. And for presidents from both parties, the emphasis on gangs has served the same purpose: fomenting public anxiety over crime and foreigners in the service of a system that mostly deports immigrants who have been convicted of no violent crime.

The tragic upshot is that, thanks to flashy headlines about international gang violence, people are primed to support the same sort of policies that created this spiraling crisis in the first place: deporting Central Americans, refugees and alleged gang members alike, while funding law-and-order crackdowns and business-friendly economic reforms in the region that can only make things worse. We are not importing Central American problems. Rather, it is the U.S. that has exported violence, time and again, to Central America.

It’s hard for deported gang members to garner much public sympathy. But it should matter that our deportation policy is destined to create the very problems it purports to solve, because the deportation of criminals simply offloads those people and their problems onto countries with fragile institutions that are ill-equipped to handle them — or to keep those problems from boomeranging right back to the United States, where they started.

This is nowhere more true than with the deportation of Central American gang members — people who mainly exist thanks to U.S. foreign policy under Reagan and who thrive not despite but thanks to the American government’s commitment to offshoring problems instead of solving them. Out of sight, out of mind. Until more refugees arrive.