WASHINGTON — To hear President Trump and his attorney general explain it, the epidemic of urban street violence in the United States stems from highly organized gangs of immigrants.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in a recent speech in Boston, targeted MS-13, a notoriously violent gang that originated in Los Angeles but has Salvadoran roots, with heated rhetoric and called for combating the group with stronger immigration enforcement.
Trump, also citing MS-13, has linked illegal immigration and “sanctuary cities” to dangerous and enterprising gangs that have “infiltrated our neighborhoods and recruited our vulnerable young people.’’
But many criminologists say this is a disturbing and misleading diagnosis of what’s causing violence, one designed to instill fear. In their estimation, the reality of the country’s murder rate in urban communities is more complex, reflecting hundreds of killings per year by individual young people or loosely organized local groups with no broader reach.
That wave of violence has little to do with stereotypical kingpins ordering hits on the streets, say criminologists.
“I do not see any evidence that the people making these policies are doing anything except taking advantage of people’s misconceptions about gangs to further their anti-immigration agenda,” said David M. Kennedy, the criminologist who developed Boston’s successful “Operation Ceasefire” program in the 1990s.
Antigang advocates in Boston, Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and elsewhere said MS-13 is responsible for a small percentage of overall gang violence in the United States and operates in a more formal, hierarchical structure than most modern gangs. Kennedy singled out Boston, where MS-13 has been responsible for about 4 percent of homicides in the past three years, to demonstrate the disconnect between political rhetoric and reality. Some especially grisly MS-13 murders — including the use of machetes to hack off victims’ heads and limbs — have made the group a perfect political target for lawmakers, Kennedy said, but the reality remains they are not the chief priority of people who study gang violence.
Most gang-related crime is committed by natural-born Americans — not immigrants — and a city’s sanctuary status has little to no impact on crime, according to a 2017 study conducted by the University of California Riverside whose findings have been misrepresented by Sessions. Sanctuary cities is the informal term used to describe local governments, including Boston’s, that have decided against actively aiding federal immigration authorities in rounding up undocumented residents. They are a frequent target of the Trump administration’s ire.
“This is the first administration, the first Justice Department, in which promulgating errors [about gang violence] is so central to their platform and policy positions,” said Kennedy, a gang policy specialist who has worked with Republicans and Democrats.
“My expectations for [this administration] weren’t very high and they haven’t even met those,” said Carl Taylor, a youth violence specialist in Detroit and professor at Michigan State University.
The White House and Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Trump and Sessions have described those who join gangs as “animals,” “thugs,” and “losers.”
“We will not allow the likes of MS-13 or any gang to prey upon our communities,” Sessions said in Boston on Sept. 21. “All law-abiding individuals must be free to walk down any street without fear of being hacked with a machete just because they don’t don the white and blue of [MS-13].”
“Securing our border, both through a physical wall and with the brave men and women of the Border Patrol, and restoring an orderly and lawful system of immigration is part and parcel of this antigang strategy,” he said.
In late September, the White House proclaimed a “National Gang Violence Prevention Week,” a designation that did not exist during the Obama administration. In the proclamation, Trump again tied a recent spike in homicide rates directly to MS-13 and immigration.
“We must address the rise of violent transnational criminal gangs, such as MS-13, that have infiltrated our neighborhoods and recruited our vulnerable young people,” Trump said. “Weak border security, failure to enforce immigration laws already on the books, and sanctuary cities have emboldened criminals.”
Community programs and other prevention efforts have attempted to curb this violence, but with uneven results. Experts said structural factors such as poverty, segregation, poor community-police relations, and easy access to weapons can also instigate homicide. But dealing with those issues is an enormous social and political challenge and requires a far broader approach than anything Trump has proposed, they say.
Trump’s “whole approach has been making America scared again,” said James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminologist. “By scaring people you garner votes . . . and gangs scare people.”
A recent FBI report said violent crime rose about 4 percent in 2016 over the previous year, though there are no numbers to determine how much of this increase is attributable to gang activity.
In Boston’s Suffolk County, an area that has experienced its fair share of highly publicized MS-13 related violence, attorneys have, so far, linked the organization to about six murders in the region from 2014 to 2016. That’s a fraction of the homicides that occurred over that time period in that area — about 4 percent of the 162 total homicides.
Alex Goldenberg, an antiviolence community organizer in Chicago’s South Side, said he felt the administration’s rhetoric boiled down to “racist dog whistling,” a singling out of young black and Latino men that fits with long-held racist stereotypes. In an interview, Goldenberg said he hoped Trump and Sessions would make time to come to one of the supposedly gang-ridden communities they deride.
“Visit for a couple of days,” Goldenberg said. “Try to actually understand us, your constituents, and understand the experience we’re going through.”
Spreading misconceptions about crime and gang violence is a bipartisan tradition in American politics dating back decades.
In advance of President Bill Clinton’s 1994 crime bill, top administration officials as well as first lady Hillary Clinton spoke, without evidence, of “superpredators” in inner cities, a term that she later apologized for using. Gang violence experts have also criticized former presidents, including President Barack Obama’s administration, for not adequately investing in antiviolence initiatives or talking about the problem in ways that foster collaborative solutions.
Dr. Leanna Wen, an emergency surgeon and current public health commissioner of Baltimore, said the Trump administration must come to see violence as a community disease, similar to how it treats opioid addictions or other public health problems.
She called the current rhetoric from Trump and Sessions “concerning.”
“We cannot look at the perpetrators of violence without looking at individual trauma that person may go through,” Wen said. “I would love to see the administration embrace the scientific understanding that violence is a contagious disease, and it spreads from person to person.”Astead W. Herndon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @AsteadWesley.