President Trump has repeatedly tried to justify his "zero-tolerance" policy against illegal immigration at the southern border by tying immigrants to MS-13, a gang which was founded in Los Angeles. He has said there is an "infestation" of gang members, with "thousands" pouring over the border. What's the truth?
Are many immigrants in MS-13?
Only a tiny fraction of a percentage of migrants crossing the U.S-Mexico border are associated with MS-13. According to Lawfare, 303,916 migrants crossed the southern border in 2017, and only 228 had any affiliation. That's 0.075%.
Statistics over a longer timespan show a similar conclusion. Between 2012 and 2017, 260,000 unaccompanied minors were processed by the border authority. Only 56 — or 0.021% — were confirmed or suspected to have ties to this specific gang.
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Is MS-13 growing in the U.S.?
From the campaign trail to his rallies today, President Trump continues to claim that America faces a growing threat from MS-13. There is no evidence of this. According to Attorney General Jeff Sessions' Justice Department, there are as many MS-13 gang members in the U.S. today as there were 10 years ago: about 10,000. Most of them are U.S. citizens and can't be deported.
What is MS-13, anyway?
MS-13 is a gang that was founded in Los Angeles. According to Hannah Dreier in ProPublica, who's been reporting on the group for five years, it's a "boutique criminal organization, accounting for a tiny portion of the 1.4 million gang members nationwide."
The gang has been linked to a number of brutal murders, but it's not sweeping the country. About 35 murders per year have been attributed to the group, fewer than other gangs that don't get headlines or presidential shout-outs, like Chicago's Gangster Disciples. The gang "has no central leader or global ambitions," says Dreier. "The gang is made up of sometimes competing cliques, often led by teenagers most interested in wielding power over other young people in their immediate circles."
On Long Island, where the gang has made an appearance, the Suffolk County Police Department looked at a sample of active MS-13 members and "found that just a quarter had come to the U.S. as unaccompanied minors," says Dreier. "The natural conclusion: This is not a border issue. It’s a recruitment issue."