President Donald Trump touted his administration’s crack down on MS-13 during his second trip to Long Island in less than a year to discuss the street gang at a round table with local officials.
Authorities they have arrested more than 300 MS-13 members on LI since last year, most of them children who crossed the border without their parents, administration officials said during the televised meeting at the Morrelly Homeland Security Center in Bethpage.
“They exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter our country as unaccompanied alien minors,” said Trump. “They look innocent. They’re not innocent.”
At one point, he erroneously stated that MS-13 “killed a cop.” The gang reportedly sought to kill a police officer on LI, but the gang has not in fact slain any members of local law enforcement.
During his visit to Brentwood last July, the president sparked controversy when he suggested that Suffolk County police officers shouldn’t protect prisoners from hitting their heads while being placed in the back of patrol cars. Suffolk cops said afterward that they would not be taking Trump’s advice.
The administration deemed MS-13 a top priority of federal investigators last year. U.S. Attorney Jeff Sessions also visited LI last year to emphasize that point after members of the ultraviolent transnational gang allegedly committed a quadruple murder in Central Islip.
Attendees of Wednesday’s forum included the parents of Brentwood teenagers Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, who were both killed by the gang in 2016 — two of at least 25 suspected of being slain by MS-13 locally in the past two years. Trump had also invited Mickens’ parents, Elizabeth Alvarado and Robert Mickens, and Cuevas’ parents, Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas, as his guests to his first State of the Union address in January.
U.S. Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) and Nassau County Executive Laura Curran, Suffolk County Police Commissioner Geraldine Hart and Nassau County Police Commissioner Patrick Ryder also attended.
“We need to get a little bit better at our intelligence sharing,” Ryder told the president during the round table. He said he’d like his investigators to get information more quickly from federal border patrol agents.
The White House estimated that there were 2,000 MS-13 members on LI. Ryder noted that his investigators have identified 500 MS-13 members in the county, half of whom he said were active. Suffolk did not immediately provide statistics for how many reputed members its police have identified.
Hart thanked the president for a recent $500,000 law enforcement grant, but noted that Suffolk is also the recipient of the most unaccompanied immigrant minors out of any jurisdiction in the nation.
The forum came on the same day that Trump’s Democratic rival Hillary Clinton endorsed Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s re-election to a third term during the party’s convention at Hofstra University. It also came on the eve of Nassau GOP Chairman Joe Mondello stepping down after 35 years to become Trump’s ambassador to the Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos. And it came as ex-Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano — who, during a 2016 campaign rally in Bethpage, endorsed then-candidate Trump — awaited a jury’s verdict in his federal corruption trial.
Like Trump’s last visits, protesters opposed to the president’s immigration policies rallied outside. They counter that the administration is unfairly painting all undocumented immigrants as criminals and that the immigrant community is most vulnerable to MS-13.
“No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here,” protesters chanted outside the building.
“We’re here today to let Donald Trump know he can’t criminalize youth and his tactics are dangerous,” said Susan Gottehrer, director of the Nassau chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “He can’t come into Nassau County and co-opt our officials and co-opt our people and create division and criminalize very vulnerable young people.”
Mickens’ father said the protesters need to consider the perspective of being a parent of a victim murdered by the gang.
“This is a fight that, in my opinion, should have been happening a long time ago,” he said. “These children really need to stop hurting each other. Because if they don’t, we won’t have a future.”
-With additional reporting by Mia DiMeo