With police in dress uniforms as a backdrop, President Trump in July delivered a blood and guts speech in Brentwood, New York, that left little doubt about how he felt about MS-13, a Central American gang that has become one of the administration’s prime examples of what Trump calls out-of-control immigration. There on Long Island, gang members have been arrested for murder and other crimes.
“MS-13 is particularly violent,” Trump said. “They like to knife 'em and cut 'em and let them die slowly because that way, it's more painful and they enjoy watching that much more. These are animals.”
Conservative politicians across the country in recent election campaigns used the specter of MS-13 and the rival 18th Street gang to whip up support and, some say, to get rid of thousands of unaccompanied youth from Central America who’ve come here over the past few years — including to the island of Nantucket. Henry Lemus Calderon was one of them. He had imagined walking across the stage of Nantucket High School with the rest of the class of 2017.
“I want to have my diploma,” he said.
Instead, this 19-year-old Salvadoran is sitting in a high-level immigration detention ward in Bristol County. Calderon, 5-foot-10 and broad shouldered, said in halting English he was stereotyped at Nantucket High School as a gang member. His chains clattered as he spoke.
“When I went to the school, he [another student] said ‘Yo, that guy, he looks dangerous, he looks like [a bad boy]',” Calderon said.
A high school tough guy, perhaps, but Calderon never imagined he would become an example of what Trump calls “a vile criminal cartel.” Calderon’s lawyer, Zoila Gomez, said she sought to subpoena witnesses to prove that her client is not a gang member, something she has done in the past.
“The subpoenas that were filed by my office before the immigration court were all denied,” she said.
Gomez has concluded that these days, immigration judges aren’t hearing it. “They are under more pressure to keep people in detention who otherwise would be eligible to be released on bond," she said.
Though her client was arrested during the Obama era, Gomez believes that Calderon’s continued incarceration is explained by new immigration policies targeting unaccompanied minors like him. She says the Trump administration is promoting the notion that many of these youths are gang members or potential recruits, “to convince the country that we have to get rid of a lot of these young men that come here.”
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said as much at Boston’s Federal Courthouse. Sessions was speaking to reporters at the U.S. District Court there in September.
“We're now working with the Department of Homeland Security to examine the unaccompanied minor issue and the exploitation of that problem by gang members who come to this country as wolves in sheep's clothing,” Sessions said.
The exact number is not clear, but between 2014 and 2016, more than a dozen unaccompanied teenagers arrived in Nantucket to live with aunts, uncles and other sponsors. Matthew Etre, until recently, directed ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit in New England. He says many are ripe for the taking.
“MS-13 is preying upon the unaccompanied minors and trying to recruit them into gang membership,” Etre said. “And that creates a problem for our communities, because you now have youth that are coming into our communities that are in school at times and are gang members at the same time. So that brings on a new dynamic for us within the community."
Operation Community Shield, in place since 2005, was ICE’s response to this perceived danger. The arrests on Nantucket are part of that continuing nationwide effort to rid the country of Central American gangs.
MS-13 and its main rival, 18th street gang, represent real threats and have for a while, says Michael Karlsberg, a political scientist at Virginia Commonwealth University who is an expert on El Salvador and Central American gangs in the U.S. But Karlsberg says the rhetoric from the Trump administration and the accelerated crackdown on gangs have political overtones.
“I think it's a lot of fear mongering, and it's greatly exaggerated,” Karlsberg said.
Karlsberg describes what he is hearing from the Trump administration as “hyperbolic hysteria.”
“It's really a tiny proportion of the overall world of gangs and organized crime in the U.S., yet because they are perceived as an alien threat from another country and in a climate in which immigration is a very hot button issue, it is an effective way to garner votes,” he added.
But Shawn Neadeuar, a spokesman for ICE, insists that the ongoing crackdown on gangs is about public safety and law, not politics.
“The president, in the Jan. 25 executive order, explicitly stated immigration enforcement goals. If you are in this country breaking the law, you can be subject to enforcement,” Neudauer said. “So while we may prioritize M-S 13 gang members, we're not going to ignore people who have committed very few or no crimes whatsoever but are still here in this country illegally.”
Some on Nantucket fear this policy will scare immigrant workers off the island. Indeed, since WGBH News began researching this story six months ago, several Salvadoran families have fled Nantucket, including one longtime resident, Isidro Lemus, who is Henry Calderon’s uncle. He crossed the border into Canada several weeks ago, and some people on the island believe many more could follow.
Henry Calderon’s father, Jose Aristides Lemus, finds it sadly ironic that the gang his immigrant son is accused of belonging to originated in this country.
Sitting in the living room of his brother’s home on Nantucket, Aristides Lemus pats his robust stomach like a drum to show the scars where three bullets entered him during El Salvador’s civil war. The bloody conflict in the 1980s and a dictatorship that the U.S. supported militarily drove tens of thousands of refugees to Los Angeles. That’s where the rival MS-13 and 18th Street gangs were formed. Members of those gangs deported to El Salvador during the Clinton presidency have helped turn their home country's murder rate into one of the highest in the world.
The possibility his son Henry will be forcibly returned to that is what keeps Aristides Lemus up at night.
This story was edited by Ken Cooper and Aaron Schacter.