Trump's latest move on immigration will likely empower MS-13 -- a group he's vowed to 'destroy'

  • Immigrants from El Salvador are the latest group to see their temporary protect status revoked by the Trump administration.
  • President Donald Trump has said conditions in El Salvador have improved, allowing TPS holders to return, but the country still faces deep-seated challenges.
  • One group that Trump has railed against, MS-13, stands to benefit if a large number of Salvadorans are displaced.

The Trump administration said Monday that it would end temporary protected status for Salvadoran immigrants after September 9, 2019, forcing nearly 200,000 immigrants in the US to return to El Salvador or face deportation.

The Trump administration has criticised TPS as a measure that was meant to be temporary, but had been extended into an indefinite benefit for hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the US.

Rescinding the program for Salvadoran – as well as Haitian, Nicaraguan, and Sudanese immigrants – is also part of Trump’s efforts to restrict legal and illegal immigration, which he has linked to crime.

Stripping Salvadorans in the US of their immigration status and forcing thousands of them back to El Salvador – where many have not been since 2001 – is likely to empower MS-13, a group that Trump has accused of turning US communities into “blood-stained killing fields” and vowed to destroy.

MS-13 has its roots in Southern California, where it was formed by migrants fleeing civil war in Central America, El Salvador in particular, in the 1970s and 1980s. The US chose sides in those conflicts, undermining governments and backing forces guilty of abuses, which forced many people to flee, often to the US.

Those migrants formed gangs like MS-13 to protect themselves from other gangs. A US immigration crackdown in the 1990s and 2000s sent many back to the Northern Triangle region of Central America – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – where their groups flourished in weak countries emerging from long periods of civil conflict.

In the years since, MS-13 and other groups like its main rival, the 18th Street gang, have helped make the Northern Triangle one of the most violent regions of the world.

‘These borders can cause your death’

The TPS deadline set by the Trump administration is more than a year away, and it’s unlikely that all of the roughly 200,000 Salvadorans in the US under TPS – and their thousands of family members – will return, but an influx of people unaccustomed to the area is likely to benefit gangs like MS-13 in two important ways.

“One, it will give them a new set of targets and people with, relatively speaking, more money,” Geoff Thale, program director at the Washington Office on Latin America, told Business Insider.

Second, “it’s going to bring a new population of young people who are potentially recruitable,” he said.

“Everybody understands that both there and [in the US] it’s vulnerable kids who don’t know their way around a particular community … who are the most likely to be targeted by gangs for recruitment,” Thale added.

Police in El Salvador have also targeted deportees from the US because of perception that they are criminals.

El Salvador’s government has fought a violent, protracted campaign against gangs, mixing hardline “mano dura” tactics and truces negotiated with government backing, but the gangs remain present and powerful.

“The gangs have divided up different parts of the country and communities amongst themselves. Those people who return won’t know what the existing gang borders are,” Mike Allison, a political-science professor at the University of Scranton, told Business Insider.

Returnees “won’t be able to recognise as well as other Salvadorans the malleability of those borders,” he added.

“You don’t have to be a gang member who crosses a border and be put at risk, but an average Salvadoran who crosses a border to go to a grocery store, to school, or to visit a friend,” said Allison, who has done research in El Salvador and Guatemala as part of the Fulbright Program.

Salvadorans have figured out a way to navigate those boundaries, Allison added, but “these borders can cause your death.”

Gangs like MS-13 are estimated to have 60,000 members in El Salvador, a country of roughly 6.5 million people. The gangs are far from the sophisticated financial syndicates or organised-criminal groups they are often compared to, but they hold disproportionate power in the country, with a presence in 247 of its 262 municipalities.

The violence they cause has driven thousands of people to make the dangerous trek to the US and costs El Salvador $US4 billion a year, according to the country’s Central Reserve Bank. Despite accusations they are involved in international drug trafficking, the gangs’ focus is largely on people and businesses in their areas of influence.

“It’s a dangerous place because in poor and working-class neighbourhoods, local criminal gangs, MS and 18th street, tend to control the neighbourhood,” Thale said. “They extort people who run small businesses. They extort people walking in and out of the neighbourhood. They extort bus owners. And if you don’t pay up, you can be killed.”

In a 2015 incident recounted by The New York Times, a fed-up bus owner decided to stop paying the gang that was extorting him for $US1 a day.

Three weeks and $US21 in missed payments later, the bus owner was shot and killed – “because of the extortion, not for any other reason,” his son said.

Salvadoran TPS holders returning to the country from the US will be “perceived as outsiders, potentially with money and connections to the United States,” Thale added. “They will be prime targets for extortion.”

El Salvador had 103 homicide for every 100,000 people in 2015, according to UN data. That figure has dropped, and the government has touted the decline, but the country remains the second-deadliest in the world with a homicide rate over 10 times higher than the US’s roughly 5 per 100,000, Thale said.

“Insecurity in El Salvador extends well beyond simply the homicide rate, to include high rates of extortion, robbery, theft, all sorts of types of victimization,” Allison added.

El Salvador’s anti-gang strategy includes important measures like violence prevention and community projects, according to Thale. But in practice, he said, “it’s mostly a hardline, zero-tolerance, lock-’em-up and throw-away-the-key, look-the-other-way-if-there’s-extrajudicial-executions sort of approach, so it’s not an approach that’s going to provide additional safety for immigrants moving back to El Salvador.”

‘Another wave of undocumented migration’

The Trump administration justified the decision to rescind TPS for Salvadorans by saying the country had recovered sufficiently from the 2001 earthquake that prompted the designation.

The administration has also pointed to the number of Salvadorans repatriated to the country in recent years as evidence the country can reabsorb TPS holders – though it’s likely many of those repatriated were gang members Trump has cited as an ongoing threat.

In fact, experts say the country is likely not in a position to take in thousands of returnees, and the Salvadoran government has few resources to protect and reintegrate thousands of citizens who may arrive over the next few years.

“El Salvador’s economy is not very strong. It’s growing roughly 2.5% a year, its GDP. Unemployment’s high. Jobs aren’t well-paying. There’s very few protections for workers,” Allison told Business Insider.

Some returnees may be able to live with family, Allison said, but jobs will be hard to find.

Many Salvadorans in the US work in service industries, he noted, which are much less robust in El Salvador, making it uncertain how or if the government there could capitalise on the work experience those returnees have gained in the US over the last two decades.

While Salvadorans may do mostly low-skilled work in the US, “in El Salvador they would look like mostly bilingual, relatively skilled workers, and what they will probably do is displace other Salvadorans” from jobs there, Thale said.

“Those people pushed out of the workforce in a terrible economy with crime and a lot of crime and violence will probably emigrate to the United States,” he added. “So, bizarrely, this will likely provoke another wave of undocumented migration here, rather than preventing it.”

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