“I noticed recently where Democrats – Nancy Pelosi as an example – are trying to defend MS-13 gang members,” Mr Trump said at an immigration roundtable. “I called them animals the other day and I was met with rebuke.”
He added: “They said, ‘They’re people.’ They’re not people. These are animals. And we have to be very, very tough.”
Mr Trump’s comments came during a Long Island roundtable focused on MS-13, a Salvadoran-American street gang that has become a focus of his Justice Department.
The president has repeatedly cited MS-13 to defend his calls for stricter border control, claiming many of its members entered the US illegally. He first referred to the gang members as “animals” in a White House meeting on immigration.
“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in – we’re stopping a lot of them,” Mr. Trump said last week. “...These aren’t people, these are animals, and we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before.”
Several outlets reported the comments as being about undocumented immigrants in general – not just MS-13 members – spurring a massive outcry. Even after the comments were clarified, however, concern about Mr Trump’s rhetoric remained.
“Calling people animals is not a good thing,” Ms Pelosi said at a weekly press briefing last week, adding: “There is a spark of divinity in every person on earth, and we all have to recognise that as we respect the dignity and worth of every person."
Mr Trump later claimed that the Democrat “came out in favour of MS-13”.
Thomas Homan, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement deputy director, defended Mr Trump’s comments at the roundtable on Wednesday, saying: "I think you're being kind. Animals kill for survival. MS-13 kills for sport."
The president also used the roundtable to announce he was working on a plan to cut aid from foreign countries every time a member of their nation crosses the US border illegally.
The roundtable was attended by local and federal officials, members of Congress, and parents of children who were killed by members of MS-13. Mr Trump told attendees that the gang was a “menace” that had turned peaceful neighbourhoods into “blood-stained killing fields”.
Just over 200 MS-13 members were charged with murder between 2012 and 2018, according to the Centre for Immigration Studies. The gang has never reached more than 10,000 members in the US, organised in de-centralised “cliques” that rarely communicate with others.
According to a speaker at Wednesday’s event, there has not been an MS-13 murder on Long Island in more than a year.
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