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The Pressure on Immigrant Youth in Suffolk After Quadruple Homicide

The recent murder of four young men, presumably by the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, has focused law enforcement resources on immigrant communities in Suffolk County. The bodies of the four victims were found in April, but the repercussions of the killings still reverberate.

Central Islip has a large Central American immigrant community. More than half of the hamlet’s 34,000 people are Latinos, most of whom are immigrants or their children. MS-13 is believed to have 200-300 members in Suffolk County and several hundred more young people on the gang’s fringes. While MS-13 is fairly small, it has been extremely violent over the last eighteen months, allegedly killing a dozen people before the quadruple homicide. Central Islip has become a notable area of gang activity because a large number of housing foreclosures over the last decade resulted in many vacant homes becoming safe-houses for gang activities. Problems have been exacerbated because Central Islip’s demographics have left it bereft of many of the resources available in other parts of Suffolk.

Following the April killings the county executive, Congressman Peter King, the governor, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have all held press events in Central Islip promising the “eradication” of MS-13. Although Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Gov. Cuomo did put together a package to help the community create gang-intervention services, much of the focus of all four levels of government has been on law enforcement.

Central Islip and nearby Brentwood have seen a large increase in police presence. In some cases, the additional police are welcome. Suffolk has a program to increase the number of Spanish-speaking officers on the force and new community policing units have begun working with local churches and organizations to increase police/community collaboration. Police Commissioner Tim Sini has taken the lead in meeting with immigrants to listen to their concerns.

Unfortunately, not all interactions have been positive. With more police in the area, more young people report being stopped by police on their way to work or when coming home from school. Police check-points have also been set up at times, leading to undocumented immigrants being ticketed for driving without a license. Congressman King’s call for an increased ICE presence just adds more fear to the already tense situation.

Young people tell Long Island immigration advocates that for the first time in memory, they are being ticketed for minor transgressions like jaywalking. The aim of these enforcement actions seems mainly to check the documents of local teenagers and to let them know they are being watched. The effect is to harm the trust that young people need to have in law enforcement for effective policing.

The national political climate is also hurting the ability of immigrants to combat MS-13. When Jeff Sessions came to Central Islip he blamed the violence of MS-13 on undocumented immigrants and said that “Sanctuary Cities” policies contribute to the violence. Suffolk is not a “Sanctuary City,” but that did not stop the attorney general from hitting that scapegoat.

When the president and attorney general blame Long Island immigrants for the violence of MS-13, they essentially tell young immigrants that even though they are not in a gang, they are still presumed guilty. 

Pat Young is an attorney at CARECEN on Long Island. His office in Brentwood is a mile from the scene of the quadruple murder. 

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