Before uttering a word of his speech on Salvadoran gang violence, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions already has opened up old wounds of a Long Island immigrant community still scarred by a 2008 hate crime.
Sessions has chosen the island’s federal courthouse, about 50 miles outside New York City Hall, as the site for his talk on MS-13.
The Mara Salvatrucha, as they are otherwise known, trace back to El Salvador’s brutal civil war. After the conflict dragged on for 10 years, fueled in part by President Ronald Reagan’s military aid to Salvadoran death squads, the United States became home to a large percentage of the war’s estimated 500,000 refugees.
Co-founded in Los Angeles by a soldier of that war, MS-13 has become an international criminal organization with ties to the drug trade, contract killing, money laundering and arms trafficking.
Sessions is set to speak this morning at the courthouse where federal prosecutors obtained a guilty plea from MS-13 member Arnolvin Umanzor Velasquez for his participation in the execution-style murder of two brothers in Brentwood, a Latino-majority hamlet known as “The Jewel of Long Island.”
In a community whose bright red streak stands out in thoroughly blue downstate New York, the memory of these 2012 killings might have made Central Islip a natural location for Sessions to drum up fear of immigrant violence.
But Rep. Kathleen Rice, a Democrat from nearby Nassau County, offered Sessions some advice.
“Yes, MS-13 is a serious threat,” the congresswoman posted Thursday on Twitter. “But you won’t touch them if the immigrant community is afraid to talk to you.”
Just this week, Sessions opened up a hotline under his program Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement (VOICE).
Various news outlets have reported on the flood of prank calls the line has received, reporting UFOs and extraterrestrial aliens, but Suffolk County Latinos are not laughing.
Twenty minutes outside the courthouse in the bayside town of Patchogue is where a group of teenagers killed Ecuadorean immigrant Marcelo Lucero. Activists here have blamed the Nov. 8, 2008, on nativist fervor whipped up by local politicians.
Extremism watchdogs at The Southern Poverty Law Center dissected the regular harassment of Suffolk County Latinos in their 2009 report “Climate of Fear.” The paper depicts local police and politicians as aloof to and sometimes complicit in crimes against the immigrant community.
Deportation fears make many immigrants reluctant to report crimes against them, but those who do speak out say they have being shot with BB guns, driven off the road on their bicycles, and targeted in arson attacks.
For the advocacy group Make the Road, which has offices in nearby Brentwood, Sessions’ visit rubs old wounds.
“What we do not need is a divisive figure like Jeff Sessions coming up from Washington to try to turn our tragedy into one of his polarizing political talking points,” the group said in a statement. “Suffolk County residents have lived through what happens when divisive politicians try to turn us against each other.”
Suffolk County police have faced monitoring by a federal court for the past four years under the terms of a settlement with the Department of Justice.
The three-year settlement had been set to expire this past January, but the Department of Justice found continued oversight was still necessary.
Extending the prosecutorial watch on Suffolk marked one of the final acts of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Under a Trump administration, the future of that deal is uncertain.
Sessions issued a memorandum on March 22 calling for U.S. attorneys across the country to review federal consent decrees on local law-enforcement agencies.
The attorney general’s speech on Long Island began at 10 a.m.
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