Once upon a time, “Our Gang” referred to those little rascals featured in the American comedy series by the same name that featured a band of poor black and white neighborhood children who wore their hats sideways and had adventures together. These days, the term “gang” generally refers to bands of poor kids of color from urban neighborhoods who hang out together and, sometimes, get into trouble. In rich white communities, such “gangs” don’t exist; we call them “fraternities.”
Don’t get me wrong — I’m all in favor of having the police investigate and arrest violent criminals. And the Globe quoted University of Texas Professor Susan Ritter who said that MS-13 is involved in drugs, arms and car theft rings, which suggests that MS-13 is indeed an appropriate target for law enforcement efforts.
But if MS-13 is a criminal enterprise, why does the Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency have the lead role sweeping through our neighborhoods rather than criminal law enforcement agents? And why wouldn’t ICE spokesman Michael Gilhooly say how many people were arrested, for what crimes, and where they were being held?
And taxpayers want to know: after all this investment of public resources, did you get bad guys in the MS-13 or not?
“Maybe they’re just getting started,” she added.
Maybe that’s right. But reports of uniformed ICE agents entering apartments with warrants for people who no longer live in the building and arrests of people with no ties to MS-13 raises the specter that ICE and law enforcement officials are using the fear of “gangs” as an excuse carry out wide-ranging sweeps of immigrant communities in search of someone — anyone — whom they might arrest, whether on criminal charges or minor immigration violations.
“People are scared,” said a Chelsea community organizer quoted by the Globe. “They don’t know what’s going on. They don’t want to go out of their houses. It’s just terrifying.”
The use of terrifying tactics seems to be the ICE way. This is the same agency that rounded up some more than 350 immigrants working at the Michael Bianco factory in New Bedford last March, shipping many of them to remote prisons in Texas without first giving them access to counsel. In many instances, minor children were left behind.
I wonder, too, if this is part of the Bush administration’s “Operation Endgame,” a 10-year campaign to track down and deport all the immigrants to the United States who are living and working here without proper documentation, by the year 2012.
Whatever you call it, the storm-trooper approach to law enforcement will drive both legal and undocumented immigrants underground, where they are more likely to become victims of crime and less likely to report those crimes to the police. And when parents are too afraid of the police to leave their homes to participate in public celebrations like the annual Caribbean festival, their children may be more likely to see the local neighborhood gang as an appealing alternative.
The terrible irony is that violent gangs like MS-13 thrive when people are driven underground. And it feels like ICE is just getting started.
By Carol Rose, Executive Director