The real message in Trump's MS-13 speech

Trump: Don't be too nice
Trump: Don't be too nice

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Story highlights

  • Raul A. Reyes: Trump tried to justify policies linking undocumented immigrants to crime
  • Communities terrorized first by MS-13 gangs, then by immigration crackdown, he says

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)On his visit to Brentwood, New York, on Friday afternoon, President Donald Trump showed how little he understands the nuances of immigration, the signature issue of his campaign.

Railing against the MS-13 gang, he suggested that the Long Island suburbs are so out of control they are akin to Cambodia or Iraq. He continually veered off-message, riffing on his campaign, Obamacare, his popularity and a host of other subjects. Not content with praising the efforts of law enforcement, he encouraged them to commit acts of brutality against suspected criminals.
Trump said, "When you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon, you just see them thrown in, rough. I said, 'Please, don't be too nice.' " It was bad enough that the Suffolk County Police Department released a statement Friday afternoon to emphasize its "strict rules and procedures" relating to the handling of prisoners and saying that "we do not and will not tolerate 'rough(ing)' up prisoners."
    All this at a speech that was supposed to draw attention to the serious threat of gang violence on Long island and around the country. If that was really what the President wanted to achieve, then this was a speech that deserves to be termed Mission: Not Accomplished.
    Trump came to Long Island because the MS-13 gang, which is known to target immigrants to the United States from countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, has been linked to gruesome killings there, and he wanted to highlight his administration's immigration enforcement policies. "We've started nipping it in the bud," he declared, referencing crimes committed by undocumented immigrants. He proudly referred to his comments made on the day he announced his presidential run, when he called immigrants from Mexico drug dealers and rapists -- in a sense, doubling down on the bigoted remarks that offended many Latinos.
    Then again, that was Trump's real message. He wasn't on Long Island solely to take aim at MS-13, let alone announce any specific plans (beyond deportation) for eliminating them. Trump was on Long Island to conflate undocumented immigrants with crime once again and to use demonization to try to justify his administration's harsh and inhumane deportation policies.
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    No doubt, MS-13 is a vicious gang that deserves to be pursued by law enforcement. The gang typically targets Central American immigrant communities, and several of their Long Island victims have been Latino. Yet the Trump administration is potentially making the gang stronger. A new CNN report, featuring interviews with MS-13 members, describes how the gang feels emboldened under Trump. Because they know undocumented immigrants will not turn to the police, for fear of detention and deportation, MS-13 is increasingly able to recruit and threaten immigrants with impunity.
    In his speech, Trump seemed to revel in pointing out that MS-13 kidnaps people, stabs their victims with knives and machetes, and (allegedly) stuffs people into barrels. Several times, he said his administration had started "liberating" towns on Long Island, as though they were no longer under control of our government.
    Trump stated that the MS-13 gang problem developed because "we let them in here over a relatively short period of time." This statement is contradicted by a fact sheet from his own Justice Department, which traces the origins of MS-13 back several decades. "The MS-13 has been functioning since at least the 1980s," the report notes. The President also linked the inflow of unaccompanied minors at our southern border to the rise of gangs such as MS-13 without offering any data to support such a claim. In reality, many of these unaccompanied minors are fleeing the threat of gangs at home.
    The reason that Trump paints such a grim -- and false -- picture of Long Island is that he wants Americans to believe that we, as a country, are under attack from bloodthirsty undocumented immigrants. Call it the Guillermo (Spanish for William) Willie Horton strategy.
    Meanwhile, immigration agents are detaining and deporting moms and dads of American kids, pastors and DREAMers. In fact, according to the government's statistics, immigration arrests are up by about 40%. This increase, however, has been driven by arrests of folks without criminal records; arrests of undocumented immigrants without criminal records has spiked by more than 150% since January. This is the reality of immigration enforcement that the Trump administration does not want to call attention to, just as it would probably like to pretend that those undocumented people who are in college, serving as valedictorians and becoming productive members of society do not exist either.
    What's particularly sad is that communities where MS-13 is active are being terrorized twice over. First, by the gang and its horrific activities. And second, by the Trump administration's immigration crackdowns.
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    Perhaps the only good news here is that the public seems to see through the Trump administration's efforts to paint all undocumented people as violent criminals. A March CNN/ORC poll found that most Americans back a path to citizenship or legalization for the undocumented. Thirteen percent of Americans want the undocumented to be deported, compared with 60% who favor allowing them a means to stay here.
    Trump's Long Island speech was a disjointed, overblown mess. His comments were nothing more than a cynical ploy to exploit and play on some people's fear of immigrants. Dismantling criminal gangs will take much more than ugly rhetoric and deportations targeting all undocumented immigrants -- and so far, that's all this administration is offering.