In the late 1990s, Tom O’Hara was emergency services manager for Suffolk County when he started hearing about the gang MS-13.
“I didn’t see it in my official capacity,” he explained. “I saw it in my coaching capacities with the kids in the local park.”
O’Hara was a baseball coach in Brentwood, a largely Latino hamlet in the middle of Long Island where he’s lived his whole life. MS-13 started in LA, among immigrants from El Salvador. The kids on O’Hara’s baseball team were mostly Latino, and he said they were being targeted at Roberto Clemente Park park by gang members who wanted them to sell drugs.
“They knew because they go to school with them,” he recalled. “And within a year I was making my exit strategy from that park.”
O’Hara said they got out of the park and picked a new location. He feels lucky that they left when they did. In the coming years, MS-13 became synonymous with gruesome killings and shootings in Suffolk and in neighboring Nassau county.
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In the last decade alone, Newsday reports MS-13 gang members have been linked to at least 52 deaths on Long Island, which has a large Central American community. In 2016, there were five grisly murders in Brentwood, alone. They included high school students Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens, who were bludgeoned to death and found in the woods.
In this climate, Donald Trump’s vow to crack down on illegal immigration helped him win 54% of the vote in Suffolk County. He returned the favor by pledging to eliminate MS-13. In July of 2017, at a speech at Suffolk Community College in Brentwood, Trump warned gang members, “We will find you. We will arrest you. We will jail you, and we will deport you.” He also invited Cuevas’s mother to his State of the Union address in 2018.
Since Trump took office, federal arrests of suspected gang members went up, as did deportations. Last December, Suffolk County District attorney Timothy Sini announced a multi-agency takedown of almost 100 gang members, from nine different cliques in Suffolk County.
Today, the gang and its cliques, or sub groups, are still out there. But Suffolk police say MS-13 homicides have steadily decreased, from 11 in 2016 to just one last year. There have been none so far in 2020
O’Hara, now 60 and retired but still coaching baseball, said local law enforcement deserves a lot of credit, but so does Trump.
“He focused the attention on the issue by his mere presence,” he said. “He is the president of the United States. And unfortunately, some of the opposition party forget that sometimes, just being there is half the battle.”
When Trump took office, he changed the nation’s immigration priorities. In the last full fiscal year of the Obama administration, 87% of those detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement were convicted criminals in the New York Region (which includes Long Island). Three years later, in fiscal year 2019, 61% were convicted of crimes—the rest were either charged with crimes, or were in violation of civil immigration laws.
O’Hara, who’s a former GOP leader in Islip, the town that encompasses Brentwood, acknowledged many undocumented immigrants arrested by ICE had nothing to do with MS-13. A Honduran day laborer from Brentwood died in ICE custody after being arrested in 2017 at his work site. But O’Hara said those without legal status should have known they could be targets for law enforcement. He compared it to former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s broken windows theory.
“It is the same premise.” he said. “You go for all of them. The law is the law.”
Still, O’Hara said that doesn’t mean everyone should be deported, adding that immigration judges ultimately get to decide.
A recent Siena College Research Institute poll of New York voters found President Trump has lost ground in the suburbs, including Long Island. Trump is now supported by 36% of likely suburban voters, compared to 45% right before the 2016 election.
On Main Street in Islip, resident Barbara Young said she believed Trump did the right thing on immigration. Though she normally votes Democrtic, she voted for Trump in 2016. Now, though, she says she won’t vote for him again.
“He’s a lunatic,” she said.
But not everyone in Brentwood believes Trump is the one who made things safer.
Lenny Tucker helped found the Brentwood Association of Concerned Citizens in 2013, after a teenage boy was shot to death outside his home. He said he’s glad there are fewer murders now, and he believes federal prosecutors and the FBI did play a role, acknowledging Trump shined a light on the gang problem.
But, he added, “I could mention a lot of people who shined a light on it. It wasn't just Donald Trump.”
Tucker said local activists made an impact, as well as local law enforcement agencies who were working with the federal government under former president Barack Obama’s administration. “I'm not going to give Donald Trump none of that credit,” he said.
His friend Sam Gonzalez, a Democratic member of the Suffolk County legislature, strongly agreed.
“Everything that's been done here in Suffolk County is because of the internal police force that's here,” he said.
Gonzalez also believes detaining more undocumented immigrants, regardless of the danger they pose, has hurt his community. The ACLU claims too many teens are accused of gang affiliation based on unsubstantiated evidence from their schools; it’s suing the Trump administration for incentivizing these arrests through local grants.
Gonzalez said the Trump administration has created a climate of fear, with fewer immigrants reapplying for free medical coverage for their children.
“They're not doing it because they are afraid that all information that is being put on paper is going back to the federal government, that's going back to ICE.”
These are the same arguments you hear whenever voters debate the president’s approach to immigration. Supporters claim the crackdown is needed, while critics call it an assault on immigrants.
Who’s right? John Oliva, a retired Suffolk County detective who investigated MS-13 and its rivals until 2014, has his own opinion.
“I think they should all stand on the stage and bow,” he said.
There’s a back story. In 2012, the former Suffolk police commissioner stopped cooperating with the FBI. The commissioner and the Suffolk County district attorney were later convicted in a coverup scandal. This meant the local-federal partnership broke down as the gang was growing more violent.
But within a couple of years, a new commissioner and prosecutor took charge and Oliva said they revived the partnership with the FBI’s Long Island gang task force. Once again, the feds were getting local intel from cops on the ground.
“It’s just getting to know what the players are again, because every year or every two years, they completely rotate in and out,” he said, of MS-13’s chain of command.
There’s another factor in Suffolk’s gang activity. Around 2014 a surge of young unaccompanied migrants crossed the border, escaping violence in Central America. Oliva said some intentionally came to Long Island to join MS-13, while others became victims of the gang. He said Trump made a difference by tightening the border.
“Ninety-five percent of people coming through were great people that were going to turn out to be extremely hard working people,” he said. “But that five percent, you know, you get the gangbangers and stuff.”
Critics of Trump’s policies say his administration has made it too difficult for genuine asylum seekers to enter the U.S.
Brentwood is a middle-class suburb where Latino residents claim they’re often treated like second class citizens by wealthier areas in the rest of the town of Islip. A federal trial is now taking place to determine whether the town’s election system violates the voting rights of Latinos.
At La Arepa, a takeout shop serving its namesake South American corn sandwich, owner Angela Restrepo hates how her area is portrayed in the media as dangerous. She was born in Colombia and lives near where the two teenage girls were murdered four years ago.
“I have three little kids,” she said. “And we actually live in peace. We walk around. It's nothing crazy.”
In thinking about the election, she said Trump has enabled hatred against Latinos with his “poisonous” talk about gangs. But she said the Democrats didn’t do enough to help her community when they were in power. She said her father’s green card was investigated during Obama’s presidency and he had to go before an immigration judge to stay in the country.
Looking at the Democrats’ campaign platform, Restrepo said, “I don’t want them to promise deportations are going to stop,” or that Biden will undo everything Trump did.
“That’s impossible,” she explained. “I want to be more certain of what’s actually going to happen, what we really need.”
For her, that means providing immigrants with more resources and helping kids stay away from gangs.
“It has to be a big change and I’m not sure if either of the parties are willing.”