MS-13 is the sum of all evil, or so the Trump administration has been telling us for months. But if you're a refugee from the gang our president calls "one of the most violent and vicious" anywhere in the world, you will no longer find safe harbor in our country. In the latest blow to the United States' record on human rights, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has declared that refugees of "gang violence perpetrated by non-governmental actors will not qualify for asylum."
The reversal in U.S. policy marks a betrayal for victims of the MS-13 gang, who had every reason to believe the Trump administration – and the president himself, who calls MS-13 members "animals" – was sympathetic to their plight.
In October, Sessions put the threat of MS-13, a transnational gang of roughly 40,000 members, in a horrifying spotlight: "MS-13 threatens the lives and well being of each and every family everywhere they infest." The attorney general added: "MS-13 members brutally rape, rob, extort, and murder. Guided by their motto – 'kill, rape, and control' – they leave misery, devastation, and death in their wake."
In February, Trump echoed Sessions' warning, calling the threat of MS-13 unparalleled: "We've really never seen anything quite like this – the level of ferocity, the level of violence," the president said at a law-enforcement roundtable dedicated to combating the gang.
John Cronan, a top Department of Justice official, underscored the gang's ruthlessness. "MS-13 members engage in indiscriminate violence," he said, "They commit rape, extortion, murder, often just for the sake of it. They recruit children to be their murderers. They gang-rape young girls, they sell them for sex. They attack their victims with chains, bats, machetes, firearms."
Despite hyping the wanton brutality of MS-13, Sessions has now slammed America's doors on its victims. In a legal decision released Monday, the attorney general writes: "The mere fact that a country may have problems effectively policing certain crimes – such as...gang violence – cannot itself establish an asylum claim." Sessions bases the decision on a narrow reading of U.S. law, insisting that asylum seekers must belong to a discrete, vulnerable social group. People who have opposed a gang like MS-13 may be "susceptible to violence from gang members on that basis," Sessions admits, but are nonetheless "too diffuse to be recognized as a particular social group."
Sessions' decision – which makes domestic violence survivors similarly ineligible for asylum – is the latest cruelty inflicted on desperate people who have sought refuge in America. Declaring "zero-tolerance" for illegal border crossers (and even legal asylum seekers) the Trump administration has also broken up hundreds of families – taking children from migrant parents, kenneling them in a former Walmart or sending them to foster homes, sometimes thousands of miles away. Human rights officials at the United Nations have condemned the policy as "serious violation of the rights of the child."
The Trump administration is flaunting these inhumane practices to deter migrants it finds undesirable from journeying to our southern border. The president's chief of staff, John Kelly, revealed the bigotry at the core of the Trump policies in an interview with NPR last month, saying of these arrivals: "They're… not people that would easily assimilate into the United States, into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people. In the countries they come from, fourth-, fifth-, sixth-grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English; obviously that's a big thing," he said. "They don't integrate well; they don't have skills."
Under Republican leadership, America was once, famously, a Shining City Upon a Hill. That America is becoming unrecognizable. Under Trump, America is now a state that rips babies from the arms of the tired and the poor. A nation that tells the homeless, tempest-tost victims of MS-13: You'll find no comfort here.