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President Trump’s claim that MS-13 gang members are being deported ‘by the thousands’

President Trump says the U.S. is moving gang members out of the country “by the thousands,” but current ICE records and the El Salvador embassy suggest little change in deportation rates. (Meg Kelly,Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

“You have a gang called MS-13. They don’t like to shoot people. They like to cut people. They do things that nobody can believe. These are true animals. We are moving them out of the country by the thousands, by the thousands. We’re getting them out, MS-13.”
— President Trump, remarks at a rally in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, June 21

“Great success, including MS-13. They’re being thrown out in record numbers and rapidly. And they’re being depleted. They’ll all be gone pretty soon.”
— Trump, remarks at Cabinet meeting, June 12

“MS-13 is being taken care of at a very, very rapid clip by General — now Secretary — Kelly. He’s done an incredible job, really incredible job.”
— Trump, meeting with House and Senate leaders, June 6

The Trump administration has, indeed, taken action to curb illegal immigration, including providing more resources to the Department of Homeland Security and expanding deportation priorities. In recent weeks, Trump has been touting his administration’s deportations of members and associates of MS-13, or Mara Salvatrucha, a Central American gang that has been operating in the United States for decades.

Are MS-13 members really being deported “by the thousands”?

The Facts

MS-13 is a transnational gang that formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s, among members of the Salvadoran community who had fled violence and civil conflict in El Salvador. U.S. agencies have been dealing with enforcement and prevention of MS-13 activities since as early as 2004. MS-13 is operating in at least 40 states.

Gang violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle region (El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala) has contributed to the surge in recent years of border crossings by unaccompanied children and families over the Southwestern border into the United States.

The White House pointed us to a news release by Immigration and Customs and Enforcement, of a six-week nationwide gang operation from March 26 to May 6. It was the largest gang surge to date by Homeland Security Investigations, the investigative arm of the Department of Homeland Security, and it netted 1,378 arrests across the country, according to ICE.

Of the total arrests, the majority (1,095) were confirmed gang members and affiliates, including 104 associated with MS-13. A spokeswoman for the Embassy of El Salvador said none of the suspected gang members detained during the recent operations described in the news release has been deported yet.

The White House noted that Operation Community Shield, ICE’s anti-gang initiative, resulted in “more than 4,300 criminal arrests and nearly 3,000 civil immigration arrests of MS-13 leaders, members and associates.” But that initiative dates to 2005, so it predates the Trump presidency.

We asked how the Operation Community Shield figures support Trump’s claim that the administration is “getting rid of them by the thousands,” and asked the White House to clarify whether Trump was generally referring to enforcement efforts that have been taking place since 2005.

White House spokesman Steven Cheung said: “He said something that is factually accurate and true. He’s the president of the United States. We are getting rid of them by the thousands.”

The actual numbers of deported MS-13 members and affiliates are in the hundreds. ICE pointed us to the June 21 congressional testimony by top DHS officials on MS-13 enforcement.

From fiscal 2016 to fiscal 2017 (as of June 4), ICE made 602 criminal arrests of MS-13 gang members and associates, which resulted in 153 convictions, according to DHS. Of course, fiscal 2016 predates Trump’s presidency as well.

Still, there has been an increase in the rate of gang deportations to El Salvador, and Salvadoran officials are preparing for more. The U.S. government deported 398 gang members to El Salvador so far this year, compared with 534 in all of 2016, The Washington Post reported.

Gang members make up a small portion of total deportations from the United States to El Salvador. Deportations to El Salvador during the first five months of 2017 (8,122) are comparable to the same period last year (8,054), according to data from the Embassy of El Salvador.

Carla Provost, the Border Patrol’s acting chief, said in her congressional testimony that Trump’s executive actions on illegal immigration enforcement gave more authority and resources to the agency to target gang activity and illegal immigration, leading to “a historic shift in illegal crossings along the Southwest border.” (We covered this previously.)

Critics of former president Barack Obama’s immigration policies call the Trump administration’s efforts a welcome change that is clearly working in curbing MS-13 activity and illegal immigration.

Some immigration experts are wary of Trump’s deportation-focused approach, and said there needs to be a comprehensive effort that includes prevention, intervention and other efforts in addition to deportation. MS-13’s expansion in the United States accelerated after increased deportations back to the Northern Triangle, in the wake of the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Jorja Leap, an anthropologist and professor at the University of California at Los Angeles whose research focuses on gang activity, said conviction and deportation of MS-13 members can take up to two years to build, and warned of rhetoric that makes it seem like deportations can happen overnight.

“I was at a community gathering [last week]. No one is being swept up and deported. In the traditional hot spots with gang activity, there’s nothing going on,” Leap said. “They’re acting like there are these overnight deportations of thousands of people. The law does not operate that way.”

The Pinocchio Test

The Trump administration is, indeed, increasing enforcement against gang activity and MS-13 members and affiliates. Earlier this year, ICE conducted the largest gang surge to date. But the deportations of MS-13 members and affiliates is in the hundreds, not the thousands, under Trump. The enforcement data Trump’s White House provided comes from an initiative that dates to 2005.

This is a situation in which there is an element of truth but Trump exaggerates the facts in a way that lacks context. It is worthy of Two Pinocchios.

Two Pinocchios

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