In 1891, a cartoon in the satirical magazine Judge made the case against immigration in much the way Donald Trump has. It depicted a wealthy white man, top hat in hand, calling Uncle Sam’s attention to a horde of shady-looking immigrant men arriving in New York at the Castle Garden port of entry. The immigrants have such labels as “Italian brigand,” “Russian anarchist,” “German socialist.” At Uncle Sam’s feet is a paper that refers to “Mafia in New Orleans, Anarchists in Chicago, Socialists in New York.” The man indignantly tells Uncle Sam: “If Immigration was properly restricted you would no longer be troubled with Anarchy, Socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!”
The case against immigration has often relied on exaggerating immigrant criminality or radicalism, and Trump has taken up that line of nativist rhetoric with a vehemence that no other president has shown. In particular, he has politicized the long-standing federal drive against the murderous MS-13 criminal gang to tarnish immigrants in general and their supporters. By so frequently decrying the gang’s atrocities, which are many, he wields a powerful rhetorical weapon against immigration from El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America. It’s a straight line from there to his decision on January 8 to end the Temporary Protected Status granted to nearly 200,000 Salvadoran immigrants. In the Trump worldview, support for immigrants is tantamount to backing MS-13.
Trump has tweeted that “The Democrats don't want money from budget going to border wall despite the fact that it will stop drugs and very bad MS 13 gang members.” He jumped into the Virginia gubernatorial race with tweets assailing the winning Democrat, Ralph Northam, for “fighting for the violent MS-13 killer gangs & sanctuary cities.” He urged support for the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, tweeting that he “will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of VA. MS-13 and crime will be gone. Vote today, ASAP!” As part of his losing campaign, Gillespie ran a series of television ads on Northam’s vote against legislation that barred sanctuary cities, juxtaposing images of the candidate and gangsters.
Both Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have traveled to Long Island to highlight cases being made against alleged MS-13 gang members. Trump acted as if the major cases federal authorities had been making there for more than a decade didn’t exist, blaming “weak leadership, weak policing, and in many cases because the police weren’t allowed to do their jobs.” He went on: “One by one, we’re liberating our American towns. Can you believe that I’m saying that? I’m talking about liberating our towns. This is like I’d see in a movie: They’re liberating the town, like in the old Wild West, right? We’re liberating our towns. I never thought I’d be standing up here talking about liberating the towns on Long Island where I grew up.”
Or a speech at an FBI Academy graduation:
To any member of MS-13 listening, I have a message for you: We will find you. We will arrest you. We will jail you. We will throw you the hell out of the country. (Laughter.) I mean, somehow, I like it better than jail. Jail we have to take care of them. Who the hell wants to take care of them? (Applause.) You know the jail stuff is wonderful but we have to pay for it, right? (Laughter.)
But these are killers, these are people that are sadists in many cases. We don’t want them. We don’t want them. They’re getting out of here.
This is The Donald Trump Show, starring the president as a cartoon-like superhero. In the latest episode, he built suspense by indicating, in a January 9 meeting performed on national television, that he’s open to a deal on immigration that will help the 800,000 young adults once protected from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival policy.
But just four months ago, he invoked MS-13 violence as justification for revoking the DACA protections:
The temporary implementation of DACA by the Obama Administration, after Congress repeatedly rejected this amnesty-first approach, also helped spur a humanitarian crisis – the massive surge of unaccompanied minors from Central America including, in some cases, young people who would become members of violent gangs throughout our country, such as MS-13.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions seems to have made MS-13 the Justice Department’s highest priority, speaking about it constantly in his public appearances. His politicizing of the federal probes in in some ways worse than Trump’s, given that as attorney general, he is in charge of the immigration-court system and appoints its judges.
In a July 17 speech in Minneapolis to the National District Attorneys Association, Sessions boasted of stepping up investigation of gangs such as MS-13, adding, “We can never cede a single neighborhood or a block or a street corner to criminal gangs. Much of the nation’s rising murder rate is a result of violent gang activity.” As it turns out, it’s expected that the murder rate dropped last year and reported crimes continued to be low, as a year-end survey of crime in the 30 largest U.S. cities indicated. And yet the nation’s chief law enforcement official frequently claims that the country is in the midst of a crime wave—justifying harsher immigration laws.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has long been active against MS-13 because it has the ability to deport suspected members without the need to prove criminal charges against them, has joined in the bravado. A recent press release summarizing 267 MS-13 arrests under “Operation Raging Bull” featured a large cartoon of a snorting bull that looked a lot like the Chicago Bulls logo, but meaner and in black.
The U.S. government has played a significant role in shaping the situation. MS-13, short for La Mara Salvatrucha, is a street gang that formed in the 1980s in Los Angeles. It drew some of the young people who fled the civil war in El Salvador—in which the United States supported the Salvadoran government and its systematic abuse of human rights—and created a niche in LA’s gang wars. After Congress passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act of 1996, federal authorities stepped up deportations to Central America, sending back many who had joined the street gang in the U.S. According to the Congressional Research Service, that contributed to the spread of gang violence in Central America.
In turn, the growth of vicious MS-13 gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras contributed to the flood of unaccompanied minors who sought refuge in the United States in recent years. “Those who flee often lack protection and face dire circumstances, including recruitment into criminal gangs, sexual and gender-based violence, and murder,” the 2016 Congressional Research Service report said. But some of those unaccompanied youth who arrived in U.S. cities faced the potentially fatal choice of resisting MS-13 gangs in the United States or joining.
It’s not a problem that can be solved with cartoons.
Paul Moses is the author, most recently, of The Italian Squad: The True Story of the Immigrant Cops Who Fought the Rise of the Mafia (NYU Press, 2023). He is a contributing writer. Twitter: @PaulBMoses.