Alfonse D'Amato

MS-13 is nothing less than a major threat

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The very first sentence of the U.S. Constitution sets as a goal to “insure domestic Tranquillity” for the American people. Protecting us from criminal elements in our midst is a key to preserving the peace. But over the past few years, law enforcement across the country has been fighting a particularly violent criminal gang known as MS-13.

President Trump’s visit here last week highlighted the danger of the gang, and the very real threat it poses to the public peace on Long Island. The president’s focus on MS-13 is not misplaced; it’s right on target. And when he and others refer to its members as “animals,” they’re not exaggerating much.

MS-13 members are notorious for the viciousness of their crimes. They take violence to new extremes. Trump chaired a round-table, along with U.S. Rep. Peter King, and as one participant put it, comparing the gang’s members to animals isn’t fair to animals. Animals, he pointed out, kill for survival, but MS-13 gangsters often kill just for thrills.

They are recruited from some of the most violent countries in Latin America. They mostly come from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, all failing states that harbor gangs and widespread narcotics trafficking. Over the past few years the gang has infiltrated the U.S. in large numbers. As many as 30,000 to 50,000 young men belong to MS-13, scattered among various countries, with 8,000 to 12,000 of them spread across the U.S., from New York to Houston to Los Angeles. With a major presence on Long Island, MS-13 members have terrorized our communities and overwhelmed law enforcement’s efforts to contain them.

To put this threat in perspective, it’s useful to compare MS-13 with another vicious group that terrorized the world until its recent series of defeats. At its height, the Islamic State, or ISIS — which managed to seize control of a large swath of Iraq and Syria — was estimated to have numbered 35,000. That’s smaller than MS-13. And comparing the extreme crimes perpetrated by the two groups is chilling. ISIS became infamous for bloody executions, including beheadings. MS-13 brutally executes its victims, often with swords and knives. ISIS engaged in horrific human trafficking, including forcing women into sexual slavery and children into combat. MS-13 likewise terrorizes women and children, coercing women into prostitution and compelling young boys to become gang members, often in return for smuggling them into the U.S.

MS-13 threatens to become the ISIS of the Americas. But just as ISIS has been decimated by a concerted, U.S.-led effort, the battle against MS-13 can be won. It will take a determined effort at all levels of government, and Trump’s leadership in the fight is crucial. At its core, the MS-13 scourge is the result of a broken U.S. immigration system that allowed these thousands of hardened criminals to enter our country. Until that system is reformed and our borders are made more secure, the criminal flood will continue.

Law enforcement officials who attended the Long Island meeting with the president noted that because gang members are often boys in their teens who sneak into the U.S. alone, they regularly take advantage of an immigration loophole that mandates special treatment for “unaccompanied minor aliens.” Unfortunately, immigration rules and regulations meant to safeguard youngsters instead offer cover to this criminal element.

Once they’ve made it across the border, even if they’re caught, these gang members benefit from a protective immigration system that allows them to stay here and melt into the general population. This system is correctly termed “catch and release,” because it stipulates that these “unaccompanied children” entering the U.S. cannot be automatically sent back to their home countries. Instead they are given “special juvenile status,” which includes permanent residence and too often allows them to be released back onto the streets.

All of which leads back to the source of the problem, which is the U.S.’s largely unsecured southern border. Major gaps in border security have made it possible for hundreds of thousands of minors to illegally enter the U.S. from Mexico. Mixed in with this human flood are MS-13 gang members.

Trump and our law enforcement authorities have correctly identified this situation as a national crisis. The key to solving it will be tightening our borders and strengthening our laws in order to turn back this lawless tide. Our domestic tranquillity depends on it.

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.