Speaking before a large crowd of law enforcement officers on Long Island on Friday, President Trump invoked the MS-13 gang in yet another attempt to paint his administration's crackdown on immigrants as an effort to control gang violence. MS-13 is notorious for using brutal intimidation tactics to maintain control of illegal drug and smuggling markets from Long Island to Central America, and Trump seemed to know that the gang's sensational reputation could be used to scare people.
"They're animals," Trump said of MS-13. He also urged police not to be "too nice" when arresting suspects and boasted about deporting immigrants.
In 2016, violent crime rates remained near the bottom of a 30-year downward trend, with spikes in violence sequestered to a few individual cities. However, in the world according to Trump, violent crime is on the rise across the country, and gangs made up of immigrants and drug dealers are to blame. Never one to be deterred by hard data, Trump said on Friday that "American towns" must be "liberated" from the grips of criminals "one by one."
"Can you believe that I'm saying that?" Trump said. "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?"
Angie Junck, the supervising attorney at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, told Truthout that Trump continues to exploit tragedy in furthering his political agenda. Murders and disappearances do occur at the hands of gangs such as MS-13, but Trump's heavy-handed response does nothing to promote local solutions to the problem. Instead, it makes communities less safe: Many victims are the same people authorities want to deport.
"People are fearful to come out and speak with police, and that's what MS-13 and other gangs capitalize on," Junck said. "People want to get out of MS-13, but what are they going to do -- go to local law enforcement, who will turn them over and expose them so they can die in El Salvador?"
For years, the war on drugs and the cartels that traffic in them has been criticized for filling US prisons to the brim and fueling horrific violence in Latin America, all while failing to reduce drug consumption at home. By criminalizing immigrants and framing its "law and order" agenda around the specter of violent international gangs, the Trump administration is threatening to repeat the same mistakes drug warriors have made for decades.
For example, Trump supports legislation in Congress known as Kate's Law, which enhances penalties for immigrants who illegally cross the border and have a criminal record in the US, even if that record is simply prior attempts to enter the country without permission. Critics say the legislation would cause the population of people held in privately run immigration jails to explode.
"The war on immigrants grew out of the war on drugs," Junck said.
Meanwhile, last week, the new Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety created by Trump and answering to Attorney General Jeff Sessions was expected to release recommendations for addressing violent crime. Civil rights and immigration reform groups, along with the growing legal marijuana industry, hoped the recommendations would provide insight into just how deep the Trump administration will dig into the war on drugs.
The recommendations never materialized, at least in public. Instead, Sessions said in a statement on Wednesday that the task force was providing him recommendations on a rolling basis, and that he would continue to review and act on them, suggesting that the task force has already shaped recent moves to reverse Obama-era policies that made moderate progress towards de-escalating the drug war.
The Justice Department did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout. Still, it's becoming increasingly clear in what direction the administration is heading.
Crafting a Crackdown Behind Closed Doors
Despite the president's angry outbursts over Sessions' decision to recuse himself from the investigation into the Trump campaign's ties with Russia, Sessions and the president are in lockstep when it comes to the war on drugs. Sessions traveled to El Salvador last week to congratulate his counterpart for arresting hundreds of alleged MS-13 members. Back at home, he has shown interest in sending federal officers to states where marijuana is legal, in search of violent, transnational crime rings that he suspects are diverting legal cannabis into the black market.
Again, there is no hard evidence that marijuana legalization drives violent crime rates; in fact, it may have the opposite effect in some areas. A recent study in The Economic Journal shows that crime rates near the southern border dropped after southwestern states legalized medical marijuana -- a sign that legalizing weed may actually hamper the same international cartel operations Trump and Sessions have pledged to fight.
Unfortunately for cannabis fans and the many thousands of people who are criminalized for using the drug, the attorney general has seriously outdated views on cannabis, which remains illegal under federal law. The legal marijuana industry has every reason to worry about a crackdown, and lawmakers from legal states are already taking action.
Last week, lawmakers in the Senate Appropriations Committee approved legislation that would prohibit federal funds from being used to prevent states from implementing their own medical marijuana laws, effectively barring the Justice Department from intervening unless there is a clear violation of state law.
The same legislation has passed as an annual budget rider since 2014, but Sessions recently asked his former colleagues in the Senate to ditch it. However, many senators hail from one of the 29 states that has legalized medical weed, and advocates expect the legislation to pass. The vast majority of voters supports access to medical marijuana and oppose federal intervention in states where marijuana is legal.
Junck said advocates are pushing for similar legislation that would protect immigrants and citizens alike from being harassed and arrested by the Department of Homeland Security for using state-legal medical marijuana. Immigrants and their family members have reported that border patrol and immigration officers will use lawful marijuana use as an excuse to detain and interrogate them.
"In regards to marijuana, Sessions said in April that he was surprised the people didn't like the idea of him cracking down on the states that have chosen to legalize," said Justin Strekal, the political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), in an email. "In response, Sessions now chooses to operate in secrecy. This is not how our system is supposed to work."
Sessions' plans for addressing states where medical and recreational pot are legally regulated have been somewhat unclear due to the glaring discrepancy between state and federal laws. The task force's as-yet-unreleased recommendations -- along with analysis of apparent links between legal markets to violent crime (if any such links existed) -- were expected to shape the Justice Department's policies going forward.
In addition, immigration activists hoped to learn from the recommendations just how far Sessions would go to crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to participate in federal deportation efforts. The Justice Department began to answer that question last week with a memo informing city governments that they would not receive certain federal grants unless they give immigration agents access to their jails and notify them before releasing undocumented immigrants. Immigrant rights groups are expected to challenge the policy in court.
Jump-Starting the War on Drugs
The Trump administration's moves toward revving up the drug war have alarmed advocates across the political spectrum.
"Many of the [Justice] Department's recent policy changes have been solutions in search of a problem, and are only going to make our crime and mass incarceration problems worse," said Inimai Chettiar, director of the Brennan Center's Justice Program, which is calling on Sessions to publicly release the task force recommendations.
In recent weeks, Sessions has instructed prosecutors to pursue the harshest charges and sentences for drug offenses, reversing an Obama-era policy aimed at reducing incarceration rates. Sessions also reinstated a policy making it easer for local and state law enforcement to benefit from civil asset forfeiture, where officers seize property suspected of being connected to criminal activity, even if the owner has not been charged with a crime. The practice has been criticized on both the right and left, and there has been a bipartisan push for asset forfeiture reform in Congress and states across the country.
Strekal said Sessions's decision to receive the Task Force's recommendations behind closed doors only plays into the public's "growing anxiety" over his ability to run the Justice Department.
"We have already seen the Justice Department issue new guidelines to rev up charges against those suspected of drug-related crimes, pursue maximum sentences for those charges, and an escalation in the department's ability to utilize civil asset forfeiture to deprive those charged of their possessions," Strekal said. "Justice is not one sided. Unfortunately, this department is."
First launched by President Nixon 40 years ago, the war on drugs has failed to deliver on its promises, and instead has destroyed millions of lives. In recent years, a growing number of global leaders have called for an end to the drug war, and drug decriminalization is gaining ground in local jurisdictions at home and around the world. By tying the war on drugs to their ongoing war on immigrants, Trump and Sessions have made it clear that they are headed in the opposite direction.