President Donald Trump and his “beleaguered” attorney general, Jeff Sessions, may be on the outs, but they’re making a unified push on immigration — by taking on the MS-13 gang.
The group has been blamed for a series of brutal murders over the past 18 months on Long Island, where Trump is scheduled to speak on Friday in a bid to pressure Congress to fork over money for his immigration crackdown, pointing to the influx of migrants from Central America as a factor in the renewed violence.
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At the same time, Sessions is 3,500 miles south in El Salvador, the epicenter of the MS-13 gang, where he’ll echo the same message in meetings with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and other top officials.
The president will use his Friday speech to urge Congress to back his border wall with Mexico and to greenlight funding for new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and immigration judges, administration officials told POLITICO.
“I think it’ll be very hard for Democratic lawmakers to vote against hiring ICE officers and the other resources we need to remove some of these dangerous and violent people, like MS-13, from our country, who are quite literally terrorizing communities, committing the most heinous kinds of crimes imaginable,” said one administration official, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the record about the president’s speech.
A die-hard immigration warrior, Sessions has given Trump credibility on the issue among conservatives — a factor that is weighing on the president as he debates whether to fire the attorney general, according to another senior administration official.
Sessions has also made eradicating MS-13 a core priority since becoming attorney general.
“Groups of murderers and rapists and traffickers and thugs are carrying out a frontal assault on the rule of law and on law-abiding men and women in communities over the country,” Sessions said during a speech on Long Island in April. “They have no right, and they must not be allowed to take control of a single city block or street corner.”
Asked whether the tension between Sessions and Trump could make it more difficult to implement the president’s immigration agenda, the first administration official said, “The president is focused on enforcing the laws of the United States, and everybody who works with him understands that.” A third administration official quipped that Sessions’ absence from the Long Island speech is “not any stranger” than anything else that’s been happening at the White House this week.
A Justice Department spokeswoman said Sessions’ trip to El Salvador had been long planned.
MS-13 is a transnational gang that was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s by Salvadorans fleeing the country’s civil war.
While the gang has existed in the United States for decades, a recent spate of grisly MS-13-connected murders involving machetes has put a spotlight on its activities and drawn the attention of the president.
“They come from Central America. They’re tougher than any people you’ve ever met,” Trump told Time magazine last year. “They’re killing and raping everybody out there. They’re illegal. And they are finished.”
Administration officials said Trump’s fascination with the gang stems in part from the fact that the MS-13 murders on Long Island dominated New York’s tabloid newspapers for months. Trump, a lifelong New Yorker, is a regular reader of the tabloids.
Trump’s top aides, including chief strategist Steve Bannon and senior adviser Stephen Miller, have also highlighted the problem in conversations with the president. Bannon and Miller, a former Sessions staffer, have long pushed Trump to be more aggressive on immigration.
Miller, a native of Southern California where MS-13 took root, is expected to play a central role in writing Trump’s Friday speech.
Long Island is still reeling from the MS-13 murders, and White House aides hope the speech will ratchet up political pressure on Democrats to support the president’s immigration policies. But Democrats are unlikely to budge.
The House is slated to vote soon on a wide-ranging spending bill that includes funding for Trump’s border wall along the Mexico border. The measure is unlikely to win support from Democrats, and it has little chance of passing the Senate.
The administration has separately called for hiring 10,000 new ICE agents, though the president’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal called for 1,000 new agents. The budget also requested funding to hire 75 new immigration judges to deal with the backlog of nearly 600,000 immigration cases pending in the courts.
Administration officials said they have been pressing members of Congress behind the scenes to back Trump’s priorities, hoping to score funding for new ICE agents and immigration judges by the end of the year.
“We’re pushing Congress hard on this,” the first administration official said. “There’s no question about that.”
Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, met with Trump in the spring to discuss his concerns with the gang and he’s been in regular contact with the president’s top aides.
“He is committed to doing all he can to destroy MS-13. He sees this as an evil organization,” King said in an interview. “He believes that the federal government and the state and local policy working together can crush it if they move quickly and effectively.”
King, like Sessions and others in the administration, blame the federal government’s unaccompanied minors programs, which help young people from countries in Central America enter the United States, for boosting MS-13’s numbers.
King called for a wholesale review of the programs, something that is gaining traction in the Trump White House. Another administration official said the issue is likely to come up in Trump’s Friday speech, along with criticism of sanctuary cities, a frequent target for the president.
The Trump administration is using the threat of MS-13 to justify many of its immigration policies. Since Trump took office, ICE has led a number of gang-related operations across the country that have resulted in thousands of arrests. And ICE has urged its agents to take action against any undocumented immigrants they come across, even if they don’t have a criminal record.
Since the beginning of January, ICE’s investigations unit has arrested 3,311 alleged gang members, including more than 350 people believed to belong to or be associated with MS-13, according to the agency.
But the Trump administration’s efforts are worrying immigrant rights advocates, who fear that the president’s rhetoric could cause a backlash against Central American immigrants. They are also raising red flags that the administration could round up immigrants who aren’t actually members of MS-13 and other gangs.
“One of our top concerns is that people are going to be labeled as gang members in an overly broad manner, which could lead to more arrests and deportations even for people who have not been active in a gang,” said Shiu-Ming Cheer, a senior staff attorney at the National Immigration Law Center.
Ted Hesson contributed to this report.