Note: Since the publication of this article, Nassau County has been removed from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) list of Sanctuary Cities and Counties. Additionally, four teenagers were brutally beaten and murdered by MS-13 members in Central Islip in Suffolk County on Long Island, sparking statements from both Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Long Island? The majority of people who are not from the Island will allude to Long Islanders’ wealth and the Hamptons. Others will comically say that when they think of Long Island, the first thing that comes to mind is the Long Island Medium. Those from the Island will refer to its world-renowned beaches and its delicacies, including pizza, egg sandwiches, and bagels. Yet, few people, if any, will associate Long Island with crime, danger, or violence. Even fewer people would mention or even know that it is home to the second most dangerous sanctuary county in the United States, Nassau County, according to a recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) report. It would also be home to the first, Suffolk County, had Suffolk County not recently revoked their status as a sanctuary county. Almost no one would mention Long Islanders being terrorized for decades by MS-13.
What is MS-13? How does it tie into the concept of sanctuary cities? Mara Salvatrucha, more commonly referred to as MS-13, is a Los-Angeles-based transnational gang with significant presence in Central America and US cities such as Washington DC and Long Island. On Long Island, they are both the largest and most violent gang. This organization is notorious for its brutality and is considered by many experts and law enforcement officials to be one of the most violent gangs that operate in the United States. MS-13 engages in a variety of illegal enterprises, including extortion, prostitution, drug trafficking, and indiscriminate killings.
So what does MS-13, and its presence on Long Island have to do with the ongoing debate over sanctuary cities in the United States? Before I delve into this, let me first establish what a sanctuary city is. Despite the fact that different cities and regions utilize sanctuary status in different ways, sanctuary cities can generally be defined as jurisdictions where policies are in place to restrict and limit cooperation with federal immigration enforcement agencies, the largest of which is Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The majority of the time, ICE will ask local agencies for information on the location of illegal immigrants who have committed violent crimes and are subject to deportation. Yet it cannot be denied that ICE has also asked for the help of local agencies to deport otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants as well.
The question here is who is hurt by current sanctuary policies. At least in the context of Long Island, the answer seems to be law-abiding undocumented immigrants, minorities, and poor people. Despite the fact that Long Island boasts the second-lowest crime rate by county (with Suffolk and Nassau counties combined), crime rates are high in a few concentrated areas, according to data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Index. The majority of crimes on Long Island are committed in just a handful of towns, with Brentwood in Suffolk County being one of the worst.
Who is hurt by current sanctuary policies? At least in the context of Long Island, the answer seems to be law-abiding undocumented immigrants, minorities, and poor people.
Why are Brentwood and these other towns so much worse than the rest of the Island? Primarily, it is because MS-13 operates in these towns and terrorizes their citizens. Yet despite the fact that a majority of its members are illegal immigrants who have previously been arrested for violent crimes, because of sanctuary city policies, these individuals are protected. As long as local governments refuse to cooperate with federal officials, these gang members do not face any likelihood of deportation. These towns are home to the largest poor, minority, and undocumented immigrant populations on Long Island, and thus these individuals are the ones who are threatened the most by the presence of MS-13. These minority communities are forced to live in constant fear and insecurity, and often those who are undocumented immigrants are facing threats from the same group that they fled from in Latin America, MS-13. As articulated by one undocumented immigrant after two teenagers were brutally murdered by members of MS-13 after assisting police with an investigation into crimes committed by MS-13 members that they witnessed, “Violence was the reason that I left ⎯ when they killed my brother. And now we are experiencing the same violence.” Last year alone, five teenagers were murdered in Brentwood by members of MS-13.
Minorities and undocumented immigrants in Brentwood and similar communities are threatened by MS-13 and current sanctuary city laws in several ways other than murder. First, they are subjected to brutal beatings by MS-13 members if they wear any blue clothing, as this color is associated with MS-13, and MS-13 members commonly attack individuals wearing such clothing, tear it off their victims, and set the clothes on fire. Such was the case recently when MS-13 attacked a student at Brentwood High School, prompting the school to highly recommend that students not wear any blue clothing. Secondly, and more notably, MS-13 exploits young men who live in Brentwood or have recently arrived illegally from Latin America by recruiting and coercing them into becoming a part of their gang. Lastly, because of the criminal enterprises that MS-13 engages in, minorities and undocumented immigrants living in these communities are put at an increased risk to be sold into prostitution, trafficked, and raped. Further, because this gang is involved in drug trafficking, they have played a crucial role as a catalyst in Long Island’s current heroin and opioid epidemic, which killed at least 464 people on Long Island last year. The true number is probably much more, as there are hundreds of additional drug overdose analyses currently pending.
What can be done to alleviate these threats to communities such as Brentwood that are largely composed of minorities and undocumented immigrants? Simply, Nassau County, must reevaluate their sanctuary city policies (Suffolk County, where Brentwood is located has already revoked its sanctuary city status). They have to do more to protect Long Islanders and these minority communities. As Assistant FBI Director William F. Sweeney stated, “Whether you live in Brentwood or the Hamptons, you have a right to safety and security in your neighborhood.” Nassau County should look to the success that Suffolk County, and specifically Brentwood has experienced after it has revoked its sanctuary city status. In Brentwood, violent crime has already fallen by an impressive forty-five percent, as the county has informed ICE of hundreds of MS-13 members subject to deportation.
Specifically there are three steps federal and local governments can take to ensure the security of all of its residents. First, Nassau County must revoke its sanctuary city status, and they must begin to inform federal immigration officials of illegal immigrants under their jurisdiction with ties to MS-13 or those who have committed violent crimes or felonies before. Secondly, Congress must pass a law to give undocumented immigrants who assist with police investigations, and specifically to help apprehend members of MS-13, immunity from deportation, unless they have a prior felony conviction. A significant number of undocumented immigrants do not come forward with information that they have for police because they fear that they will be deported; immunity would help assuage that fear. Lastly, in addition to this, laws must be passed that ensure such immigrants who testify, and or cooperate with police investigations, protection from members of MS-13 in the form of Witness Protection. If these steps are taken, not only will communities with a high population of minorities and undocumented immigrants be safer, but it will also help to eradicate the presence of MS-13 from Long Island, causing a decrease in crime rates and combating the heroin and opioid epidemic that has plagued Long Island.
Photo credit Immigration and Customs Enforcement