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Frontline’s ‘Gang Crackdown’: How Trump Uses MS-13 To Justify Unlawful Detention Of Undocumented Teens

President Donald Trump’s administration contends undocumented immigrant children are afforded plenty of due process, and in the administration’s effort to crackdown on MS-13 in the United States, there is little reason to be worried about their treatment by law enforcement.

In a new documentary from FRONTLINE, “The Gang Crackdown,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is asked if he is concerned about statements from lawyers that kids are “accused of having gang affiliation with very flimsy evidence and held in detention for months.” Rosenstein brushes off the question.

“I think that’s probably a very unfair characterization. The reason I say that is that what we see within the Department of Justice is an extraordinary level of due process that illegal aliens receive. That’s why we have a backlog of more than 600,000 cases,” Rosenstein states.

He later adds, “So based upon what I’ve seen, I think we have pretty substantial due process rights for people who are in the United States unlawfully, much more so than you see in many foreign countries.”

The attitude is not unique to Rosenstein. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Deputy Director Thomas Homan is “increasingly troubled by orders from federal judges halting the deportation of individuals, all of which appear to ignore the fact that each alien in question was lawfully ordered removed from the United States after full and fair proceedings, many of which lasted several years or longer, at great taxpayer expense.”

“These orders hinder ICE’s efforts to address the clear public safety threat posed by many of these aliens—the majority of whom have criminal convictions. […] Of course, entering the United States illegally is, itself, a crime,” Homan told the New York Times.

That mirrors the sentiment of federal and local officials in “The Gang Crackdown,” which premieres on PBS on February 13. It examines how the violent gang became a focus of the Trump administration and the impact a police crackdown in Long Island, New York, has had on immigrant teens.

Timothy D. Sini, who was the Suffolk County Police Department Commissioner from 2015 to 2017, is confronted with concerns about police designating high school students as associates of MS-13 because they wear a certain color of clothing or they wear a Chicago Bulls sweater. He refuses to describe the criteria for designating someone an MS-13 associate.

“We don’t publicly disclose the criteria because if we did, when our officers and detectives are attempting to generate intelligence, MS-13 would be one step ahead of us,” Sini argues.

Producer Marcela Gaviria, who is conducting the interview, replies, “But that’s what advocates and lawyers complain about. They say, ‘What if I suddenly showed up at school with a certain color shoe and didn’t know that that was the criteria?'”

Sini interrupts. “We’re not rounding people up based on the color shoe they’re wearing, and they know that,” he claims, bobbing his head assertively to punctuate his answer.

Such dismissal of alleged rights violations exemplifies the indifference the Trump administration promotes toward the rule of law.

The documentary opens by introducing viewers to MS-13, particularly a gruesome example where two girls in Long Island were murdered. The police respond by escalating their operations in communities. They go door-to-door to find any suspects responsible. However, as Patrick Young of the Central American Refugee Center points out, the Suffolk County police must deal with the “climate of fear” they created, where Latinos feel “intimidated” about going to them with information.

Sergio Argueta of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth, which is a gang violence prevention organization, recalls how Commissioner Sini stood in front of a helicopter, a police tank, and armed police officers and made a “grandiose announcement that for every officer that stands in front of those cameras there are dozens and hundreds that are going to make the annihilation of MS-13 their number one priority.”

“This idea that you’re going to sort of launch this repressive attack and you’re going to annihilate this gang—violence meeting violence is not going to solve this issue,” Argueta declares.

As the documentary progresses, FRONTLINE highlights multiple cases. They are both of individuals from the immigrant community, who fear MS-13 and also are swept up in crackdown unlawfully.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited Suffolk County in April 2017 and met with law enforcement officials. He said MS-13 recruits “unaccompanied minors. And every time they convert a young person to their depraved life of violence and crime, they steal those young people’s future and our nation’s future.”

The film depicts Sessions’ visit as a turning point. Law enforcement receive the signal from the federal government that they can do whatever it takes to remove immigrants they suspect of alleged ties to MS-13. The federal government will fully back them. That is when a kind of frenzy takes over high schools in the county, where officers label immigrant teens as dangerous. They treat the presence of “unaccompanied minors” as a part of the MS-13 threat, even though several are refugees who fled gang violence in Central America.

It falls on attorneys from the New York Civil Liberties Union and other firms to step in defend undocumented immigrant teens, who have their constitutional rights violated. They have to help teens transferred to highly restrictive prison facilities because they are inappropriately labeled gang members.

Fortunately for many of the detained teens, the Trump administration loses a major class action lawsuit that results in some justice. But the Trump administration also maintains that judges have no authority to order the release of undocumented immigrant teens held in detention with little-to-no evidence.

What the FRONTLINE documentary quite clearly shows is no matter how much the judicial branch attempts to rein in abuses of power, the Trump administration will hold fast to its cruel deportation agenda. They see MS-13 as ample justification for widespread criminalization of innocent and nonviolent immigrants.

The Trump administration punishes individuals and their families, who in several cases fled gang violence, because their appearances and ethnicity make them look like the people MS-13 targets for recruitment. Much more resistance and opposition will be required to coerce the Trump administration into respecting the dignity and rights of undocumented immigrant children.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."