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The Immigrant Gang Plague
City Journal ^ | Summer 2004 | Heather Mac Donald

Posted on 07/18/2004 5:03:38 PM PDT by primeval patriot

City Journal

The Immigrant Gang Plague

Heather Mac Donald       
Summer 2004

Before immigration optimists issue another rosy prognosis for America’s multicultural future, they might visit Belmont High School in Los Angeles’s overwhelmingly Hispanic, gang-ridden Rampart district. “Upward and onward” is not a phrase that comes to mind when speaking to the first- and second-generation immigrant teens milling around the school this January.

“Most of the people I used to hang out with when I first came to the school have dropped out,” observes Jackie, a vivacious illegal alien from Guatemala. “Others got kicked out or got into drugs. Five graduated, and four home girls got pregnant.”

Certainly, none of the older teens I met outside Belmont was on track to graduate. Jackie herself flunked ninth grade (“I used to ditch a lot,” she explains) and never caught up. She is now pursuing a General Equivalency Diploma—a watered-down certificate for dropouts or expelled students—in the school’s “adult” division. Vanessa, who sports a tiny horseshoe protruding from her nostrils, is applying to the adult division, too, having been kicked out of Belmont at age 18. “I didn’t come to school very often,” says this American-born child of illegal aliens from El Salvador. Her boyfriend, Albert, a dashing 19-year-old with long, slicked-back hair, got expelled for truancy but has talked his way back into the regular high school. “I have good manipulative skills,” he smiles. After a robbery conviction, Albert was put on probation but broke every rule in the book: “Curfews, grades, attendance, missed court days,” he boasts. “But they still let me off the hook.”

These Belmont teens are no aberration. Hispanic youths, whether recent arrivals or birthright American citizens, are developing an underclass culture. (By “Hispanic” here, I mean the population originating in Latin America—above all, in Mexico—as distinct from America’s much smaller Puerto Rican and Dominican communities of Caribbean descent, which have themselves long shown elevated crime and welfare rates.) Hispanic school dropout rates and teen birthrates are now the highest in the nation. Gang crime is exploding nationally—rising 50 percent from 1999 to 2002—driven by the march of Hispanic immigration east and north across the country. Most worrisome, underclass indicators like crime and single parenthood do not improve over successive generations of Hispanics—they worsen.

Debate has recently heated up over whether Mexican immigration—unique in its scale and in other important ways—will defeat the American tradition of assimilation. The rise of underclass behavior among the progeny of Mexicans and other Central Americans must be part of that debate. There may be assimilation going on, but a significant portion of it is assimilation downward to the worst elements of American life. To be sure, most Hispanics are hardworking, law-abiding residents; they have reclaimed squalid neighborhoods in South Central Los Angeles and elsewhere. Among the dozens of Hispanic youths I interviewed, several expressed gratitude for the United States, a sentiment that would be hard to find among the ordinary run of teenagers. But given the magnitude of present immigration levels, if only a portion of those from south of the border goes bad, the costs to society will be enormous.

The Soledad Enrichment Action Charter School in South Central Los Angeles is at the vortex of L.A.’s gang culture. Next door to a rose-colored, angel-bedecked church, the boxy school glowers behind barred gates like those that surround prisons. Soledad’s students, about half blacks and half Hispanics, have been kicked out of other schools. They have brought violence with them. In early March, a gunman opened fire on 20 students entering the school at 7:30 am, wounding two. Tensions were high again as school let out one day this April. A boy had been sent home earlier for fighting; the question now was, would he return to retaliate? The school’s probation officer radioed the LAPD’s 77th Division to plead for some officers to keep watch, without success. As the students, dressed in plain white T-shirts, filed out to the sidewalk, two burly security guards and a gang counselor warily eyed the street.

Asked about gangs, the teens proudly reel off their affiliations: SOK (Still Out Killing); HTO (Hispanics Taking Over); JMC (Just Mobbing Crazy). A cocky American-born child of Salvadoran parents says that most of his peers from the eighth grade are “locked up or dead.” “Four are dead—three were shot, one was run over.” Were you just lucky? I ask. “They were gangbanging more than me,” says the 17-year-old, who won’t give his name. “I try to control myself, respect my parents.” That respect only goes so far. Asked if he’s been in jail, he swaggers: “Yup, for GTA”—grand theft auto. And he has no intention of leaving his gang: “They’re the homeys, part of the family.”

Eighteen-year-old Eric, born here to an illegal Mexican and Guatemalan, is one of the few students I talked to who doesn’t gangbang, though he is on probation for second-degree robbery, his second conviction. Half his friends from elementary school are involved in crime, he says. Of course, gang problems in Los Angeles schools are hardly confined to academies for delinquents like Soledad. Gang fights in some of L.A.’s regular high schools draw such crowds that youthful pickpockets have a field day working the spectators and participants. “People would steal your pagers and cell phones,” reports one student who has bounced through several schools.

David O’Connell, pastor of the church next door to Soledad, has been fighting L.A.’s gang culture for over a decade. He rues the “ferocious stuff” that is currently coming out of Central America, sounding weary and pessimistic. But “what’s more frightening,” he says, “is the disengagement from adults.” Hispanic children feel that they have to deal with problems themselves, apart from their parents, according to O’Connell, and they “do so in violent ways.” The adults, for their part, start to fear young people, including their own children.

The pull to a culture of violence among Hispanic children begins earlier and earlier, O’Connell says. Researchers and youth workers across the country confirm his observation. In Chicago, gangs start recruiting kids at age nine, according to criminologists studying policing and social trends in the Windy City. The Chicago Community Policing Evaluation Consortium concluded that gangs have become fully integrated into Hispanic youth culture; even children not in gangs emulate their attitudes, dress, and self-presentation. The result is a community in thrall. Non-affiliated children fear traveling into unknown neighborhoods and sometimes drop out of school for lack of protection. Adults are just as scared. They may know who has been spray-painting their garage, for example, but won’t tell the police for fear that their car will be torched in retaliation. “It’s like we’re in our own little jails that we can’t leave,” said a resident. “There isn’t an uninfested place nearby.”

Washington, D.C., reports the same “ever-younger” phenomenon. “Recruitment is starting early in middle school,” says Lori Kaplan, head of D.C.’s Latin American Youth Center. With early recruitment comes a high school dropout rate of 50 percent. “Gang culture is gaining more recruits than our ability to get kids out,” Kaplan laments. “We can get this kid out, but two or three will take his place.” In May, an 18-year-old member of the Salvadoran Mara Salvatrucha gang used a machete to chop off four left fingers and nearly sever the right hand of a 16-year-old South Side Locos rival in the Washington suburbs.

Ernesto Vega, a 19-year-old Mexican illegal who grew up in New York City, estimates that most 12- to 14-year-old Mexicans and Mexican-Americans in New York are in gangs for protection. “If you’re Mexican, you can’t go to parties by yourself,” he says. “People will ask, ‘Who you down with? Que barrio?’ They be checkin’ you out. But if it’s 20 of you, and 20 of them, then it’s OK.”

For some children, the choice is: get beat up once a week, or get beat up once to enter the gang. Others join for the prestige and sense of belonging. Mario Flores was one of them; he joined Santa Ana, California’s, Westside Compadres. “When I was 13, I was like, ‘Wow.’ I wanted them to jump me,” he says in the soft near-whisper of the cool. “They’re like, ‘You want to get down?’ They got to jumping at you, they go to call you, ‘Trips from Westside Comps’—you feel good.”

Flores (or “Trips”) is a depressing specimen of gang culture: uneducated and barely articulate. He’s sitting on the other side of a Plexiglas window in the Santa Ana Central Jail, talking to me over a phone. In and out of jail with dazzling regularity over the last three years, he most recently left prison on April 14; on April 21, he was arrested again on a rape charge. Born in Portland, Oregon, but raised in Mexico, Flores went to live with cousins in San Bernardino, California, at age 13 and has been traveling the Southern California gang circuit—Riverside County, Santa Ana, East L.A.—ever since. Now 20, he is slender and finely chiseled. Gang hand gestures accompany his speech like hieroglyphics. “When I saw gang members,” he says, pointing first to his eyes, then outward, “they’re like, ‘Are you down with my shit?’ ‘I’m down!’ ” I ask if he speaks English or Spanish with his gang. “You speak Chicano,” he says. “ ‘Hey, homey!’ You mostly talk English, you’ve got some good words. But the way you talk, you don’t talk good. You don’t talk like other people.”

Flores expresses the fierce attachment to territory that is the sine qua non of gang identity. “I was like, ‘I love my neighborhood. If you don’t love my neighborhood, I’m going to fuck you up.’ ” Charles Beck, captain of the LAPD’s Rampart Division, marvels at this emotion. “They all come from identical neighborhoods, identical families, and go to identical schools, and yet they hate each other with a passion.” The territorial instincts can only be compared to the Balkans, says Corporal Kevin Ruiz, a Santa Ana gang investigator. “There’s people who all they do is patrol gang boundaries. They’re like me, in a way: I’m looking for bad guys; they look for rivals.”

“Trips” showed his love for Santa Ana’s Westside Compadres by doing “missions”—robbing bars, stealing wallets and cell phones, selling drugs—to raise money for the gang. “If a big homey told me to fuck someone up, I had to,” he explains. The gang reciprocated by giving him a place to stay—when he was bringing in cash. Otherwise he lived in cars or on the street, sometimes in a hotel.

The chance that Flores will ever become a productive member of society is slight. Routinely kicked out of high school for fighting, he lacks rudimentary skills. Like many prisoners, he claims to be reading the Bible and thanking Jesus, but such prison conversions rarely last. His personal life is troubled: “My lady, she mad at me”—not surprisingly, given his most recent rape charge—and Flores is not certain she will be waiting for him when he gets out of jail. Most likely, Flores will continue contributing to the Hispanicization of prisons in California: in 1970, Hispanics were 12 percent of the state’s population and 16 percent of new prison admits; by 1998, they were 30 percent of the California population, and 42 percent of new admits.

Even as it reaches down to ever-younger recruits, gang culture is growing more lethal. In April, 16-year-old Valentino Arenas drove up to a courthouse in Pomona, California, and shot to death a randomly chosen California Highway Patrol officer, in the hope of gaining entry to Pomona’s 12th Street Gang. The assassination wouldn’t surprise Dennis Farrell, a Nassau County, New York, homicide detective. “We’re amazed at the openness of shootings,” he says. “When we do cases with Hispanic gangs, we often get full statements of admission, almost like they don’t see what’s the big deal.”

The unwritten code that moderated gang violence three or four decades ago has now fallen away. “When I grew up,” says Santa Ana native and gang investigator Kevin Ruiz, “there were rules of engagement: no shooting at churches or at home. Now, no one is immune.” One of Ruiz’s colleagues on the Santa Ana police force, Mona Ruiz (no relation), spent her adolescence in Santa Ana gangs; now she tries to get kids out. “Back then,” she says, “if someone got jumped, you responded with fistfights, not guns. Guns started in the 1980s.” Earlier gangbangers even showed a certain fastidiousness of dress: “Guys used to iron their jeans for two hours,” Mona Ruiz recalls. “Then they wouldn’t sit down” to avoid marring the crease. All that changed when heroin hit, she says.

The constant invasion of illegal aliens is worsening gang violence as well. In Phoenix, Arizona, and surrounding Maricopa County, illegal alien gangs, such as Brown Pride and Wetback Power, are growing more volatile and dangerous, according to Tom Bearup, a former sheriff’s department official and current candidate for sheriff. Even in prison, where they clash with American Hispanics, they are creating a more vicious environment.

Upward mobility to the suburbs doesn’t necessarily break the allure of gang culture. An immigration agent reports that in the middle-class suburbs of southwest Miami, second- and third-generation Hispanic youths are perpetrating home invasions, robberies, battery, drug sales, and rape. Kevin Ruiz knows students at the University of California, Irvine who retain their gang connections. Prosecutors in formerly crime-free Ventura County, California, sought an injunction this May against the Colonia Chiques gang after homicides rocketed up; an affidavit supporting the injunction details how Chiques members terrorize the local hospital whenever one of the gang arrives with a gunshot wound. Federal law enforcement officials in Virginia are tracking with alarm the spread of gang violence from Northern Virginia west into the Shenandoah Valley and south toward Charlottesville, a trend so disturbing that they secured federal funds this May to stanch the mayhem. “This is beyond a regional problem. It is, in fact, a national problem,” said FBI assistant director Michael Mason, head of the bureau’s Washington field office.

Open-borders apologists dismiss the Hispanic crime threat by observing that black crime rates are even higher. True, but irrelevant: the black population is not growing, whereas Hispanic immigration is reaching virtually every part of the country, sometimes radically changing local demographics. With a felony arrest rate up to triple that of whites, Hispanics can dramatically raise community crime levels.

Many cops and youth workers blame the increase in gang appeal on the disintegration of the Hispanic family. The trends are worsening, especially for U.S.-born Hispanics. In California, 67 percent of children of U.S.-born Hispanic parents lived in an intact family in 1990; by 1999, that number had dropped to 56 percent. The percentage of Hispanic children living with a single mother in California rose from 18 percent in 1990 to 29 percent in 1999. Nationally, single-parent households constituted 25 percent of all Hispanic households with minor children in 1980; by 2000, the proportion had jumped to 34 percent.

The trends in teen parenthood—the marker of underclass behavior—will almost certainly affect the crime and gang rate. Hispanics now outrank blacks for teen births; Mexican teens have higher birthrates than Puerto Ricans, previously the most “ghettoized” Hispanic subgroup in terms of welfare use and out-of-wedlock child-rearing. In 2002, there were 83.4 births per 1,000 Hispanic females between ages 15 and 19, compared with 66.6 among blacks, 28.5 among non-Hispanic whites, and 18.3 among Asians. Perhaps these young Hispanic mothers are giving birth as wives? Unlikely. In California, where Latina teens have the highest birthrate of teens in any state, 79 percent of teen births to U.S.-born Latinas in 1999 were to unmarried girls.

According to the many young Hispanics I spoke to, more and more girls are getting pregnant. “This year was the worst for pregnancies,” says Liliana, an American-born senior at Manual Arts High School near downtown Los Angeles. “A lot of girls get abortions; some drop out.