How Fox News has used violent gang MS-13 to demonize immigrants

Hosts and guests routinely use Suffolk County’s MS-13 problem as a justification for Trump’s anti-immigration policies

In the months leading up to President Donald Trump’s July 28 remarks in Suffolk County, New York, where he spoke about “America’s weak border and immigration enforcement,” Fox News repeatedly reported on Long Island’s MS-13 problem, falsely attributing the gang’s growth to immigration policies and an influx of unaccompanied minors to the area. But law enforcement officials and experts agree that the key to fighting MS-13 and impeding its recruitment efforts is integrating newly arrived immigrants into the community, something that Suffolk County has historically failed to do.

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Trump blamed “weak border and immigration enforcement” for  Suffolk County’s MS-13 problem

Wash. Post: In Suffolk County, Trump blamed “America’s weak border and immigration enforcement” for MS-13’s Long Island presence. The Washington Post reported that Trump used his remarks about the brutality of MS-13 -- which is blamed for 17 murders over 18 months in Long Island’s Suffolk County -- to “push Congress to boost funding for the administration's immigration crackdown,” including the construction of a border wall on the southern border, 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, 5,000 new Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers, harsher penalties on immigrants who enter the United States illegally, expedited deportations, and penalties for sanctuary cities. [The Washington Post, 7/28/17]

Fox News has used Suffolk County’s MS-13 problem as a justification for Trump’s “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants

Suffolk County sheriff on Fox & Friends: MS-13 is “exploiting the unaccompanied minor program.” Suffolk County Sheriff Vince DeMarco appeared on Fox & Friends and claimed that most MS-13 gang members “come here through the unaccompanied minor program and are here illegally.” Host Brian Kilmeade agreed, commenting, “They come over and oftentimes without parents. They're put in temporary homes. And they’re running wild since then.” From the July 28 edition of Fox & Friends:

BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): President Trump here heading to Long Island today, where they have seen increase in MS-13 gang activity, to show support for law enforcement officials who combat them every day and are making real progress. Here to talk about that is Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent Demarco, who is set to meet with the president at today's event. Sheriff, exciting time, the president comes out to Long Island. Sadly, he’s there because that's the heart of MS-13. What progress has been made in six months?

SHERIFF VINCENT DEMARCO: Well, about 17 people have been arrested recently. There were four murders in April. And those people were arrested last week, indicted by the Department of Justice.

KILMEADE: So we [inaudible] a ride-along about six weeks ago. And he said the sense of people on the street in the gang unit is that Homeland Security was got their back. ICE has got their back. And they are starting to deport these kids -- some cases -- and these young adults right away.

DEMARCO: Yes. MS-13 is made up of primarily teenagers, and, as you know, they are very brutal, very desensitized to violence. Most of them have come here through the unaccompanied minor program and are here illegally. They’re not meeting the conditions of the program, and they are deportable.

KILMEADE: They come over and oftentimes without parents. They're put in temporary homes. And they’re running wild since then. They intimidate other kids to join them or they get beat up or they get killed. In fact, the four that were killed, you just solved a major murder in Brentwood last week.

DEMARCO: Yeah. The FBI Long Island gang task force, which we are a member of, worked that case. And if you really think about it, it's only been a couple of months, and usually a case like that would take much longer to solve. But it just shows you the resolve and the priority that it is for the Department of Justice.

KILMEADE: But Sheriff, the president’s going to be there today. He tweeted this out: “Big progress being made ridding our country of MS-13 gang members in general. Making our country safe again.” Guess what? The message is getting to El Salvador. Stop coming. You're going to be arrested or sent back immediately because there’s a direct link between both. That's where the attorney general is today.

DEMARCO: Yes. I think it's very important that the president has sent this message and that the attorney general is in El Salvador to go see firsthand what is going on there. There is a civil war between MS-13 and the 18th Street Gang. They’re bitter rivals. And MS-13, as you know, is exploiting the unaccompanied minor program. The president is standing up to them and backing up his words. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 7/28/17]

Fox News’ Tucker Carlson and former Suffolk County executive Steve Levy agreed that the spike in MS-13 violence is “related to” “lax immigration policies.” Tucker Carlson hosted former Suffolk County executive Steve Levy on his show to discuss the increased MS-13 violence in Long Island, NY. Levy blamed “lax immigration policies” for the violence, claiming that Obama-era policies “allow[ed] for these hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors to flood the border” who then became vulnerable to MS-13 recruitment. Levy is known for implementing measures that blocked undocumented immigrants from being hired by county contractors and county licensees, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). At least one nativist website, VDARE, has praised Levy as a “patriot” for “defending his constituents against the costs and burdens of illegal immigration.” From the April 17 edition of Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight:

TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): So the obvious question is where did this group come from? It appears related to our immigration policies. Is that right?

STEVE LEVY: Well, they surface from El Salvador. They've been around for a long, long time. But they've been growing by leaps and bounds, and a lot of people associate that growth with President Obama's decision to allow for these hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied minors to flood the border -- 2013, 2014. It's not 5-year-olds or 6-year-olds we’re concerned about here but 15, 16, 17-year-olds that come here without parents. MS-13 becomes their family, their protectors, and we’re seeing a major growth in these gangs. And they’re as vicious as can be. And we’ve got to stop the political correctness, go after these guys, and get them deported.

CARLSON: What did we think was going to happen? Who thought that was a good idea? It just seems so obviously not a good idea.

LEVY: Exactly. But, of course, it's all about identity politics here. There was a coalition that developed from the Obama administration and those on the left -- and I was formerly a Democrat, but I left the party in large part because of the extreme shift of the party on this illegal immigration matter. And it's all about building your base of college students, single women, and minorities, and the pandering got out of control, and they’ve now become an open borders party, and we're seeing the results of it.

CARLSON: I think that's exactly right. So to MS-13, is this primarily a business enterprise?

LEVY: Its organized crime. That's the way I look at it. The feds did a great job in tackling the Cosa Nostra and other organized crime elements. It's time that we treat MS-13 and other gangs just as we did organized crime. That means creating gang registries. So if you have a guy who's been convicted, why should he be allowed to hang out with other gang members? If you're an organized crime member convicted, you can’t hang out with other organized crime members. We should follow that same policy as it applies to MS-13 members.

CARLSON: So you've got a problem out in Suffolk County and Long Island. We've got a map we’re going to put up on the screen. This is from ICE, and it shows the spread of this group from Miami to San Francisco to Boston, Newark. Towns you would not expect to see this group. Where did it start and when did this spread happen and why didn’t the rest of us notice?

LEVY: Well, they've been around for years and years, but they displaced the Latin Kings, the Bloods, and other such groups in the last several years. In large part, many believe because of the influx of the undocumented minors. We've seen anywhere from 2,000 to 3,500 of these undocumented, un-chaperoned minors on Long Island alone in the last several years. We warned it was going to have major ramifications on our schools, on our hospitals, on our infrastructures, and our safety, and now we've seen a dozen young people murdered over the last year in just two communities alone, Brentwood and Central Islip on Long Island. It's nuts. The political correctness has to stop. We have to go after these guys and get them out of this country.

CARLSON: How involved are they in drug trafficking? Is that the primary way that the gang finances itself?

LEVY: It’s primarily drug trafficking, but it's all about control. You talk to the superintendents and the principles of these schools, how they are intimidating kids, 13, 14, 15-year-olds in school that they have to go out and commit a crime or they will be butchered. They’ll threaten their families. It's the same type of horrible modus operandi you see a guy like El Chapo carry out. It's now here in the states, in our suburbs, here in Long Island and throughout the country.

CARLSON: I'm becoming convinced of that, and I'm just so struck by the lack of news about this group or the lack of outcry from Americans that this is happening. And I just don’t understand it.

LEVY: It’s political correctness.

CARLSON: I think that’s right.

LEVY: It’s just like you said, they're a bigger threat than ISIS are to us. And if you're going to defeat the problem, you first have to admit what it is. Same thing with the Islamic terrorism. If you don't say with the problem is, you can't defeat it.

CARLSON: That’s exactly right.

Levy: Here, there's a big white elephant in the middle of the room nobody wants to talk about. It's the link of the growth of these gangs and our lax immigration policies, Tucker. [Fox News, Tucker Carlson Tonight4/17/17; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2/26/09; VDARE, 3/24/10]

Fox News’ Steve Doocy: “The [border] wall will help” eradicate MS-13. Fox & Friends co-host Steve Doocy complained that “one of the things people don't talk about [when discussing] MS-13 is they’re mainly in this country illegally.” Fox guest Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) responded that “there is a huge illegal immigration component of it” and concluded that “there’s no doubt” that a wall along the southern U.S. border would help solve the gang problem. From the May 5 edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends:

STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): What's going on out in your neck of the woods?

REP. LEE ZELDIN (R-NY): They recruit these kids as early as elementary school, and once you are in you can't get out. And what we saw with the most recent crime, you had four murders. One of the individuals was in the gang and tried to get out and was murdered because once you're in you can't get out. Then three others were murdered because you can't associate yourself with that person who is trying to get out.

DOOCY: We had a guest on a week or two ago, congressman, who said that one of the things people don't talk about MS-13 is they’re mainly in this country illegally.

ZELDIN: There is a huge illegal immigration component of it. Some of them have records from the countries that they're coming from. They’ve already been in prison. They’re maintaining contact with people who are in prison in these other countries. There is the illegal crime that we hear about like a machete murder of these four individuals a couple weeks ago that brought [Attorney General Jeff] Sessions and President Trump so vocal and advocating to crackdown on MS-13. But there’s also the illegal narcotics coming into our country. They’re selling drugs. They’re making a lot of money off of that as well.

DOOCY: OK. You need help out there. What are you going to do?

ZELDIN: On the federal level, there’s the law enforcement component. There is that need to prevent illegal narcotics from coming into our country. When we talk about the need to strengthen our border, it’s not just a need to tackle the amount of people who are coming here into our country illegally, but also the amount of illegal narcotics coming on. So, part of this is law enforcement. Part of it is the juvenile justice system and having the resources in our local communities. It's our schools doing a better job preventing and -- for rehabilitation for those individuals. They’re individuals who associate themselves with the gang. They do their time, and then they want out. And being able to get them out is important as well. Combating illegal immigration is huge though.

DOOCY: Would the wall help?

ZELDIN: There's no doubt. I was stationed in Fort Huachuca, Arizona, the Huachuca Mountains. We already have a 9,000-foot wall there. In Texas, we have a river. But in many other places all along the southern border there are vulnerabilities that have to be addressed.

DOOCY: OK, so the wall would help it sounds like. [Fox News, Fox & Friends5/5/17]

Brian Kilmeade: “Many [unaccompanied minors] turned out to be gang members.” Fox host Brian Kilmeade claimed that vulnerable immigrants under the age of 18, many of whom are fleeing gang violence in their home countries, “turned out to be gang members.” From the May 2 edition of Fox & Friends:

BRIAN KILMEADE (CO-HOST): The MS-13. This is new to some people -- not new to you.

SHERIFF TIMOTHY SINI: That’s right. So, MS-13 has been in this country since the ‘80s. They’re approximately 10,000 strong in our country, 30,000 strong worldwide. A very violent gang. They engage in violence for violence’s sake. And when they do engage in violence, it’s brutal.

KILMEADE: And what they’re doing is using younger people than you would think, right?

SINI: Absolutely.

KILMEADE: And a lot of people think -- and the people I was talking to yesterday -- say when those kids surged across our border, unaccompanied minors, they got stuck into school systems, many on Long Island. And now these classes were overcrowded, and many of them turned out to be gang members.

SINI: There’s no doubt that MS-13 preys on immigrant communities. MS-13 is going to prey on the vulnerable, so when you’re dealing with folks who are coming here who are not with their parents, who are here in this country for the first time, they don’t have the social network or as large of a social network as you or me, they’re going to certainly be prime targets for a gang like MS-13. [Fox News, Fox & Friends, 5/2/17]

Experts say gang eradication relies on integrating immigrants and local enforcement -- not immigration policy

WTOP: Law enforcement officials “describe the ideal anti-gang method as … education, intervention/prevention and enforcement.” WTOP, Washington, D.C.’s local news station, published a piece that outlined law enforcement’s prescription for battling MS-13 as “a three-pronged approach: education, intervention/prevention and enforcement.” Capt. Paul Cleveland of Fairfax County, VA, who is a member of Virginia police’s anti-gang unit, told WTOP that offering immigrant kids after-school activities and keeping them away from gangs is just as important as finding and detaining gang members. [, 6/19/17]

CNN: “Experts say using MS-13 to justify cracking down on undocumented immigrants could actually make the gang stronger.” Experts cited in an April 29 CNN report questioned the administration’s focus on immigration policies as a way to eradicate MS-13, saying that the Department of Justice might be “undermining its cause by equating MS-13 to undocumented immigrants.” The article explained that MS-13’s “ranks were continuously strengthened by deportees from the US returning home”:

But while Liquorie appreciated the federal government wanting to help local law enforcement fight the gang, he questioned whether DOJ was actually undermining its cause by equating MS-13 to undocumented immigrants.

But the truth about the gang, the first street gang to be labeled a “transnational criminal organization” by the US government, is more complicated -- and experts say using MS-13 to justify cracking down on undocumented immigrants could actually make the gang stronger.


While it's unknown how much of the Central American strength of MS-13 was homegrown, a Congressional Research Service analysis of MS-13 found that its ranks were continuously strengthened by deportees from the US returning home, even as members also migrated to the US. [, 4/29/17]

Some undocumented immigrants with information about MS-13 did not report it to police out of “fear of deportation.” Multiple people familiar with MS-13 as well as two MS-13 members themselves told CNN that “they think Trump's crackdown on immigrants is actually making MS-13 stronger because witnesses are more reluctant to come forward for fear of being deported.” From the July 28 report:

And several people familiar with MS-13, including two gang members themselves, told CNN they think Trump's crackdown on immigrants is actually making MS-13 stronger because witnesses are more reluctant to come forward for fear of being deported.

“It's not like before, where ... they (the gang) were more hidden,” said Margarita, adding that a decade after fleeing violence in El Salvador she has never felt more afraid. “People can get deported, so they don't call the police. So they (MS-13) feel more free.”

“I think it's emboldening them, because this gives them the opportunity to tell immigrants, 'What are you gonna do? Are you going to report us? They're deporting other innocent people ... (so) they're going to associate you with us by you coming forward,'” said Walter Barrientos, Long Island coordinator with Make the Road, an immigrant advocacy group. [CNN, 7/28/17]

Business Insider: Police chiefs from areas impacted by MS-13 agree that Trump’s policies “will have a negative impact on the fight against the Mara Salvatrucha.” Business Insider reported that “police chiefs from three different U.S. counties impacted by the MS-13 street gang -- including Suffolk County Police Commissioner Timothy Sini -- “spoke out about policies adopted by President Donald Trump's administration during a Senate hearing on May 24.” The chiefs particularly voiced concern about Trump’s threat “to cut federal funds for law enforcement bodies” of sanctuary cities and ramp up deportation efforts. The police chiefs noted that these policies would “compromise the main source of information on which law enforcement relies to tackle the gang,” the Latino communities. [Business Insider, 5/25/17]

Some Suffolk County officials have acknowledged that investing resources in immigrant communities is an effective way to stop gang recruitment. Telemundo correspondent Diego Arias investigated MS-13 gang recruitment in Long Island and learned that at least one local politician believes that ending gang violence requires “investing in the most vulnerable communities,” referring to marginalized immigrants. Luis Montes, assistant Suffolk County deputy executive, told Arias, “We are trying to enter at this [young] age, when kids still haven’t been recruited and can be saved.” One local immigrant rights’ advocate highlighted the gangs’ ability to “understand these young people and their experience much more than our local governments and the police” as a major problem. [Telemundo, Noticiero Telemundo, 4/27/17]

Many Suffolk County policies have served to marginalize immigrants

SPLC: Latino immigrants in Suffolk County have “routinely” been “the target of violent attacks, harassment and abuse driven by a virulent anti-immigrant climate.” A 2009 SPLC report stated that “Suffolk County officials have contributed substantially to an atmosphere conducive to racial violence” and law enforcement have shown indifference to hate crimes against Latino immigrants while employing tactics -- such as asking a person’s immigrant status -- that drive immigrants into the shadows. [SPLC, 8/31/09]

Univision: Multiple Long Island kids have recently been accused of being MS-13 members “just for being undocumented.” Univision’s Blanca Rosa Vilchez reported that at least seven parents on Long Island are “reporting their children being arrested because ICE has accused them of being integrated into MS-13” merely because they are undocumented and further described how they were not “ able to communicate with them once they are detained.” The director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Suffolk County told Vilchez that ICE is arresting children in their homes and taking them to detention centers without notifying their parents, and one lawyer explained that the arrested child is not able to speak to his or her lawyer for a period of time. [Univision, Noticiero Univision: Edición Nocturna, 7/25/17]