In President Donald Trump’s push to restrict immigration to the United States, MS-13 has become the perfect villain. Trump has focused obsessively on the violent street gang tied to immigrants from El Salvador, appearing at events across the country to highlight brutal murders committed by the group, focusing on two teenagers who gang members allegedly hacked to death with machetes.
There’s a political angle to the singular focus on MS-13. The Trump administration has made its strident demands to wipe out the gang in explicit conjunction with sweeping calls to unravel so-called sanctuary city protections, to promote laws to ramp up deportation proceedings and expand the detention of immigrants, to broaden immigrant gang-tracking databases and special gang task forces, to deputize local law enforcement for immigration enforcement, and in recent days, even to justify the repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
In short, Trump is harnessing the horrors of MS-13 in an attempt to enact much of his immigration agenda.
There is nothing new about Trump’s demonization of immigrants, but his focus on MS-13 does not appear to have a long legacy. The Intercept searched in vain through his speeches and statements during the campaign for a single reference to MS-13 and came up blank. He seems to have discovered the decades-old gang in April, and since then has tweeted about them nine times.
The strategy may be new to the halls of power in Washington, but the idea of using violent gangs to demonize immigrants has long existed on the far-right. In fact, a blogger and legal analyst who now has a perch of power within the administration has for years promoted a detailed plan to elevate the dangers of MS-13 in order to radically expand immigration enforcement.
Jon Feere was in January appointed as a special adviser to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, following a decade of work at the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration think tank. Feere outlined the strategy to use MS-13 as the perfect villain to ramp up a national crackdown on immigrants in a 2008 position paper he co-authored at CIS.
While Trump’s promises to weed out the “bad hombres” predate Feere’s hiring, the administration’s actions on immigration almost uncannily mirror the paper’s proposals. Feere focused on the dangers posed by MS-13 and, much like Trump and his allies are doing today, suggested that enhanced immigration enforcement — from removing sanctuary protections to granting local police immigration enforcement powers — was necessary to gang suppression.
Feere and his CIS colleague Jessica Vaughan set forth similar arguments in a video posted to CIS’s YouTube channel. The duo stressed the MS-13 threat and explained that a response could incorporate broad anti-immigrant policies, from preventing people without proper immigration documents from getting jobs, accessing social services, and obtaining identification documents to stop immigrants from “blend[ing] into the community.”
The recommendations may have seemed fringe at the time. CIS, after all, was founded by John Tanton, a Michigan-based doctor who has played a leading role in the anti-immigrant movement and also attracted attention for his white supremacist views. Tanton has warned of a “Latin onslaught,” wondered “whether minorities … can run an advanced society,” and declared that, “for European-American society and culture to persist requires a European-American majority, and a clear one at that.”
But Feere is no longer on the outside. In January, he was appointed to serve as a special adviser to ICE. Julie Kirchner, the former executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, another Tanton-sponsored immigration group, was also appointed in January to advise Customs and Border Protection’s acting commissioner.
The new MS-13 focus was on full display in July as Trump traveled to Long Island to give a dark speech devoted to the gang, warning that the group has “transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields.”
Trump, flanked by a crowd of police officers, pledged a forceful response to the gang threat through a new wave of immigration policies, from border control to the passage of a bill nicknamed “Kate’s Law” — named after a San Francisco Bay Area woman killed by an unauthorized immigrant — that imposes new penalties for illegal immigration, including making it more difficult for defendants to challenge removal orders.
CIS, unsurprisingly, has celebrated the Trump administration’s MS-13 agenda. Feere, before joining ICE, worked since 2006 as a legal policy analyst at CIS. There, he argued relentlessly for decreased immigration — legal and illegal — blaming migration for crime, terrorism, and disease.
In a blog piece criticizing complaints over the deaths of migrants in ICE detention centers, Feere argued that the death rates were in fact “remarkably low,” and that human rights advocates should instead fault the “inadequate health care system in a detainee’s homeland.”
On Twitter, Feere shares pro-Trump missives, political commentary, and messages with racial overtones. Feere quoted The Economist to show that immigration has “led America to enter ‘an era of white decline'” and quoted Joe Biden to say that “those of us of European stock will be an absolute minority.” He also tweeted that a California town’s “97% Latino” population shows that “mass, non-diverse immigration leads to things like appointing illegal aliens to commissions.”message at Ann Coulter, adding, “So much for tolerating diversity!”
Last year, Feere tweeted an article by VDare, an anti-immigrant eugenics site run by Peter Brimelow, a writer who argues that migration policies should favor white people. The article highlighted an incident in which a man was killed by an immigrant. “It’s time to make immigration policy great again,” Feere tweeted in his last message before joining ICE.
ICE officials declined to explain Feere’s role at the agency, but his ongoing social media use provides a window into his job.
In April, Mary Ann Mendoza, an anti-immigrant activist whose son was killed in a collision with an unauthorized immigrant driver, tweeted a picture of herself standing with Feere. “Thank you Jon Feere for your unwavering support of all of the victims families! YOU are appreciated!!!” she wrote.