Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of a teenage girl who was savagely killed by MS-13 gang members, told President Trump on Wednesday that he was justified in calling them “animals.”
Thomas D. Homan, acting chief at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said the president could have said even worse and it would have been justified.
“I think you are being kind,” he said. “Animals kill for survival. MS-13 kills for sport. They kill to terrorize.”
Mr. Homan and Ms. Rodriguez were defending Mr. Trump after his characterization last week of MS-13 as “not people, these are animals,” which ignited a ferocious backlash from congressional Democrats and immigrant rights groups who said he was un-Christian, a racist and a genocidal mass murderer.
“You are correct. They are animals in how they kill, how they get these kids, and they torture them,” an emotional Ms. Rodriguez told the president at a roundtable discussion in Long Island, New York, meant to connect the dots between a renewed surge of illegal immigration and the growing MS-13 gang problem.
The Trump administration says laws must be changed to stem the flow of MS-13 recruits from Central America — some of them crossing specifically to join the gang and others being perfect targets for recruitment once they reach the U.S.
But the policy questions have been overshadowed by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric. Although he has made similar comments about MS-13 in the past, the pushback this time was outsized.
“We are all God’s children,” scolded House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat. A Washington Post columnist said Mr. Trump had joined the likes of “Stalin, Mao, Hitler and Pol Pot.”
Immigration rights activists called Mr. Trump’s characterization of MS-13 racist and part of a “hateful agenda.”
In Long Island, which has been under siege by MS-13, Mr. Trump questioned why people would defend a street gang whose motto is “kill, rape, control.”
“They are coming to the defense of MS-13,” the president said. “Nobody understood it. Nobody.”
He said Democratic leaders should instead join the fight against MS-13 and drop their opposition to Republican plans to tighten immigration laws.
The links between MS-13 and immigration have become clearer in recent years. Authorities say the influx of unaccompanied alien children (UAC), which began under President Obama and has resurged in recent months under Mr. Trump, created a new pool of recruits.
In some cases, gang members are coached to lie about their age and claim to be younger than 18 in order to pose as UAC, which earns them quick release and placement in communities.
The government nabbed one such case last month when an 18-year-old from El Salvador claimed to be underage, then later acknowledged that he was an adult and was part of MS-13. He said he was trying to leave the gang.
In other cases, legitimate UAC have become recruiting pools for gangs inside the U.S., police and Homeland Security officials say.
“They recruit young children, they train them how to be smuggled across our border, how to then join up with gang members in the United States,” Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told Congress last month.
An operation last year against MS-13 dubbed Raging Bull nabbed 267 MS-13 members. Of those, 64 had entered the U.S. as UAC, authorities say.
Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said such numbers are a small fraction of the 250,000 UAC who have shown up at the border over the past five years.
“The reality is there’s not a single member of this panel or anyone in this room who is going to defend MS-13 or gang activities, period,” Mr. Durbin said. “But does anyone really believe that one of our most pressing security issues in the United States today would be children fleeing horrific violence in Central America?”
Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said the Trump administration is creating more UAC by mounting criminal prosecutions of parents coming to the U.S. with their children.
If they are treated as illegal immigrants, then they are kept together as a family and often quickly released into the U.S. Most don’t show up for their deportation hearings, but Democrats said they are still together as family.
If the parents are prosecuted, however, the children are put into foster care as UAC. Lawyers involved in those cases say the parents often lose track of the children at that point, creating even more trauma from the separation.
Mr. Durbin blamed Mr. Trump for exacerbating the border surge, saying his administration canceled an Obama-era program that invited thousands of people from Central American countries to apply for refugee status from their home region rather than make the dangerous trip to jump the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.
But the administration is pushing for a get-tough approach.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said less than 4 percent of UAC are deported because most of them never show up for their court dates and instead blend in with the 11 million other illegal immigrants in the U.S.
He suggested expanding expedited removal powers so illegal immigrants in all categories can be deported quickly.
For his part, Mr. Trump said he wouldn’t back down from using harsh words to describe MS-13.
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