On Long Island, Sessions Vows to Eradicate MS-13 Gang
CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. — The attorney general of the United States, Jeff Sessions, came on Friday to this Long Island area besieged by the transnational gang known as MS-13, and in a 20-minute speech to local police commissioners and sheriffs vowed to eradicate the gang by cracking down on illegal immigration.
Mr. Sessions said the gang, which is linked to El Salvador, carries a threat similar to the Colombian cartels and the mafia. He said it smuggled gang members across the United States border and recruited young immigrants.
His message was familiar, and it bore the wishes of President Trump, who Mr. Sessions said was “particularly alert to” the violence affecting Suffolk County, where the bodies of four young men who had been brutally killed were found near a park on April 13.
The authorities contend the killings had the markings of MS-13, which would bring the gang’s body count to 15 in Suffolk County since the beginning of 2016, the most violent stretch since MS-13 took hold on Long Island in the late 1990s.
“The MS-13 motto is kill, rape and control,” Mr. Sessions said at the United States Courthouse here. “Our motto is justice for victims and consequences for criminals. That’s how simple it is. Prosecute them, and after they’ve been convicted, if they’re not here lawfully, they’re going to be deported.”
Mr. Sessions talked tough, declaring that “this is the Trump era,” when the federal government would back law enforcement. He said that he would add prosecutors to the Eastern District of New York. On Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York had come to the area to announce that he would add 25 State Police officers to the gang-fighting efforts.
Mr. Sessions did not, however, offer assurances to the sizable immigrant community that its members could report crime to the police without worrying about their immigration status.
That has been a concern for local law enforcement officials, who fear that the Trump administration’s promise to crack down on undocumented immigrants will destroy trust in the community and hamper investigations. In presentations throughout the county, the Suffolk County police commissioner, Timothy Sini, said that if crime victims or witnesses came forward, the police would not ask about their immigration status.
Mr. Sessions called the notion of strict immigration enforcement eroding trust an “exaggerated argument” and said that people could still call 911 anonymously to report crime.
He said that prosecuting immigrants who had entered the country illegally and committed crimes was still the federal government’s priority, and that the government was not “out seeking witnesses to crimes to deport.” But he added, “It cannot be that the attorney general grants immunity contrary to law for people who violate the laws of the United States.”
Mr. Sessions then met with law enforcement officials from Suffolk County, Nassau County and the State Police to discuss ways to best fight a gang whose hallmark weapon is the machete.
Before Mr. Sessions arrived, about 200 protesters gathered in the early morning outside the courthouse, across the lawn from the armored cars and Homeland Security guards.
“I’m concerned that his response is anti-immigrant, which would lead to racial profiling Latinos, African-Americans,” said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
But Representative Peter T. King, a Republican from the Second District of New York, which includes Central Islip and neighboring Brentwood, was visibly angered by the protesters. He had invited Mr. Sessions to Long Island to meet with law enforcement officials to help solve the problem, and attended a news conference after Mr. Sessions’s speech.
“They should be on their knees thanking him, not out there protesting,” Mr. King said at the news conference. “It’s shameful, it’s disgraceful that leaders in the community would criticize the attorney general.”
Mr. Sessions said the first step to combating criminal groups like MS-13 was to secure the border and restore “a lawful system of immigration.” He noted that the administration was adding immigration judges at the border to expedite deportations, and criticized the “lawless practice” of sanctuary cities that do not cooperate with immigration authorities. (Though, in a reversal, he said that he was “a big admirer” of the New York Police Department for leading the way in community-based procedures, and proving that “broken-windows strategies work,” referring to aggressively policing minor violations to prevent more serious crimes.)
“We cannot continue with this transporting across our border illegal immigrants who have not been properly vetted and actually are part of criminal organizations,” Mr. Sessions said.
He did not elaborate on how MS-13 smuggles gang members into places like Long Island, but last week, Mr. Sini did.
“There is no question that MS-13 members who have immigrated illegally here have recruited individuals coming over,” he said. Mr. Sini added that intelligence showed that MS-13 was threatening local families to become legal guardians for gang members.
The numbers, he said, are indicative of this trend: seven of the 13 MS-13 gang members indicted in a sweep by the United States attorney’s office in March had entered the country as unaccompanied minors. Ten of those indicted were undocumented immigrants.
About 4,000 unaccompanied minors have settled in the county in the last several years after fleeing the violence-racked countries of Central America, and gang members have preyed on them. About 400 children who entered the country unaccompanied and relocated to Brentwood are now enrolled in the school district, Levi McIntyre, the superintendent, said last week.
“The best way to tackle the problem is to convince young people to stay away from the gangs,” Mr. Sessions said. During a news conference, he would not commit to providing financial resources to Suffolk County for intervention or prevention programs.
Later, when he met with the families of two teenage girls from Brentwood who were killed in September, he did make that promise, said Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of one of the girls, Kayla Cuevas, 16.
“He told me, ‘Rest assured that this is going to be spoken about, talked about, and there will be more resources and programs to our community and schools,’” Ms. Rodriguez said. “I’m happy that he did come out and hear our concerns.”
La Mara Salvatrucha, shortened to MS-13, originated as a street gang in Los Angeles in the 1980s, with members who were refugees from El Salvador. It developed into a transnational organization. Mr. Sessions said he was told that the gang had headquarters in the jails of El Salvador and had 30,000 members, 10,000 of them in the United States.
On paper, the Suffolk police seemed to make progress after the killings of Ms. Cuevas and the other girl, Nisa Mickens, 15, arresting 170 gang members. Then came the deaths of the four young men. Two of them were immigrants from Honduras who had escaped gangs there.
“I have a message for the gangs that target our young people: We are targeting you,” Mr. Sessions said. “We are coming after you.”