Calling members of the transnational street gang MS-13 “animals” who like to let their victims “die slowly because that way it’s more painful,” President Trump on Friday sought to highlight his administration’s efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, reduce violent crime and secure additional congressional funding for immigration enforcement.
The president spoke before a crowd in Suffolk County, N.Y., which since the start of last year has seen 17 brutal murders allegedly committed by MS-13, including a fatal attack with machetes and baseball bats on two teenage girls, authorities say.
“Incredible. One of our real stars. Truly one of our stars. John Kelly is one of our great stars. You know, the border’s down 78 percent,” the president said, referring to a reported decline in apprehensions of people crossing the southwest border of the United States. (Trump’s 78 percent figure is disputed however.)
The president told an audience of officers from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, that his administration and the nation supported them fully.
“We have your backs 100 percent,” Trump said. “Not like the old days.”
The president declared a goal of completely eradicating MS-13, which he claimed had grown its ranks within the United States by exploiting the “weak borders and lax immigration enforcement” allowed by previous administrations.
The era of lax enforcement, Trump announced, was now over.
“One by one, we’re liberating our American towns,” the president said, describing raids by ICE.
The first 100 days of the Trump administration saw a nearly 40 percent increase in the number of people arrested who were either known or suspected of being in the country illegally compared to the same time period in 2016, according to ICE.
At one point in the speech, Trump seemed to encourage more forceful arrests by law enforcement. “Like when you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand like ‘don’t hit their head,'” he began, “I said, ‘you can take the hand away, OK?'”
The president also told the crowd he wanted Congress to fund an additional 10,000 ICE officers, more judges to help speed up deportations and spending for the border wall, which the House today voted to do to the tune of $1.6 billion.
The mention of Congress sent Trump on a topical digression in the rambling speech, deriding Senate Republicans for their failure early Friday morning to partially repeal the Affordable Care Act.
“They should have approved health care last night, but you can’t have everything, boy oh boy,” he told the crowd, sighing. “They’ve been working on that one for seven years. Can you believe that? The swamp. But we’ll get it done. We’re going to get it done.”
Trump continued: “You know I said from the beginning, let Obamacare implode and then do it. I turned out to be right, let Obamacare implode.”
At other points in the speech billed as focusing on immigration and gang violence the president celebrated this morning’s positive economic growth numbers and bemoaned America’s “bad” trade deals.
The president finished up by again lamenting the brutal violence by MS-13 gangs, made up largely, he said, of people in the country illegally.
“What happened to the old days where people came into this country? They worked and they worked and they worked and they had families and they paid taxes,” he said to the crowd. “We don’t see that.”
As NPR’s Joel Rose reported, while many in Suffolk County were pleased to see the president shine a spotlight on the impact of MS-13 on their community, others doubted the effectiveness of Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
“We have families here and young people who are being terrorized by gangs who will not come forward because of the fear of the Donald Trumps and Jeff Sessions,” said Phil Ramos, a Democrat in the New York Assembly who represents Brentwood, the largely Latino community where Trump’s speech took place. Ramos says many residents now “won’t come forward and report gang activity or gang threats or the fact that they are being extorted, or violence against their children because they fear that threat from authorities.”