Members of MS-13 — a gang made up of Central Americans — are “tougher than any people you’ve ever met. … They’re killing and raping everybody out there.” Or so contends President President Trump. In his State of the Union address, Trump referenced MS-13 as the latest in a long line of mythical Bad Hombres, and the reason the United States needs to build a wall, now.
But these statements are stereotypes designed to foster fear, not a description of reality. The level of local or national threat posed by MS-13 does not match the increasing hysteria they inspire. And this distortion matters.
Fear helps to win support for the border wall under the premise that it will help solve the problem of MS-13. But in reality, such rhetoric will only create stereotypes and anxiety that could punish innocent Latinos in the United States, citizens or otherwise, while doing little to make Americans safer.
Of course, this is not the first time politicians have used a Latino group as a boogeyman for political gain. Seventy-five years ago, it was the fear over pachucos — a group of Mexican and Mexican American youths who lived along the United States’s southwest border — that rose to a hysteria, culminating in a riot that remains a historical scar. The riot alienated many Mexican Americans, which in turn helped shift their politics away from what some would consider assimilation.