Jessica stood in a clearing in the woods where the ground was strewn with used condoms and broken bottles. Cicadas hummed in the country club grounds edging the campus of the Hempstead High School, a brick fortress with narrow windows and a weedy green lawn. Beyond the trees that separated the high school from the golf course, commuters from Eastern Long Island zipped along the expressway on their way to work in New York City. It was September of 2000, Jessica's first week of seventh grade, but she would not be going to class.
She felt both anxious and excited as one of the older boys standing next to her pulled out a black-and-white marbled notebook from his backpack and handed it to her. Scrawled inside it were the secrets of his gang, Salvadorans With Pride -- its handshakes, history, and symbols, and even some photographs of its teenage enemies. She was instructed to memorize it. She had 15 minutes, and then she would be quizzed. If she passed, she would move on to the beating.
She answered every question correctly and was even able to recite the gang's prayer before she was pushed into the middle of the circle. One of the boys looked at his watch and gave the signal. Two boys and three girls lunged at her, kicking and punching. A couple swung sticks. She fought back. She was supposed to. Jessica was small, but she was tough. She eventually succumbed to the beating and curled into a ball on the ground as their sneakers and fists rained down on her. At the end of 15 seconds, they picked her up gently. One of her attackers put his arm around her and lifted her into his car. Mercy Medical Center was a few blocks away. They dropped her off at the door.
After the nurses had bandaged her cuts, they left her lying in the emergency room bed alone. Her decision to join the gang was supposed to have severed her ties with her family, but the only person she could think of to call was her mother. She dialed, and her mom answered. She already knew what had happened. "Call a taxi," her mother said. Jessica walked home.
Until middle school, Jessica had lived in a house that neighbors dubbed the "crack house" for its often drug-addled residents and visitors. Her uncles were members of Mara Salvatrucha, a gang originally formed in Los Angeles by refugees of Central America's civil wars, and Jessica's living room was one of their main hangouts.
In first grade Jessica was placed in an English as a Second Language class, even though she was born on Long Island and spoke English fluently. Her mother was furious when she found out, but that wasn't until the end of the year. Her mom, an immigrant from Honduras, didn't speak English and couldn't read most of the report cards and notes Jessica carried home. The next year, Jessica was moved to an English class, where she sat in the back and stayed inconspicuous by keeping her head down on her desk. She quickly fell behind. The teacher began sending her to a remedial reading class during her lunch period. Her mother only got involved at school when Jessica was suspended for fighting. She had a reputation for throwing chairs, earning the nickname La Diabla from her classmates.
Jessica shuttled between the village's decrepit elementary schools several times. The harried teachers and guidance counselors had little time or resources to deal with a problem child like her. Two of the schools were eventually closed because the buildings, plagued by water leaks, structural hazards, mold, and rodents, were declared too dangerous to house students. No one noticed when one of Jessica's uncles began sexually abusing her when she was 11. She joined Salvadorans With Pride, the rivals of her uncles' gang, as a gesture of defiance.
Jessica met Sergio Argueta, a former gang member who had founded an anti-violence organization to help at-risk youth, at the pinnacle of her career in the gang two years later. She was one of the leaders, and she had been given her own gun, which she kept tucked under her mattress. She was an expert at stealing cars, and Salvadorans With Pride had dispatched her to make friends with a gang in a nearby town that had access to guns.
Sergio arrived at her house in the company of a social worker, who had opened a case on Jessica's older brother. It was 9 in the morning, and Jessica's mother mentioned that her daughter, a freshman in high school, had just come home from a night out. The social worker and Sergio exchanged glances. They asked to meet her.
Jessica started cursing as soon as she saw Sergio and the social worker. "What the fuck do you want? Why don't you people leave me the fuck alone!" she said by way of introduction. Jessica stormed out. Sergio was stunned. He would leave this case to the social worker.
Months later, however, he met Jessica again. A police detective had called Sergio to ask for his help in dealing with a high school student who believed her life was in danger. Sergio was dismayed when he saw the student he would be trying to help. But he didn't walk away this time. They didn't have many options, he told her. There was no official mechanism for dealing with children in Nassau County who were already involved in gangs. There was a state shelter for homeless runaways, but technically she was neither.
The biggest hurdle, however, would be Jessica herself. By this time, Jessica had been in and out of court, spent time in group homes for juvenile delinquents, and was drifting through high school even though she still struggled to read. If Sergio was going to help her, she had to promise him that she really wanted to change.
She stared down at her feet. She nodded. Yes, she wanted out.
In 2005, then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez gave a speech to the fraternal order of police in New Orleans warning about the "expanding danger of violent street gangs." The gangs were becoming more sophisticated, regimented, and competitive, he told the officers, but, even "worse, our latest data indicates new trends in gang violence that we must anticipate and prepare for: The gangs that are migrating, spreading, and expanding are increasingly influenced by the California-style of gang culture."
The gangs brought with them "more violent and targeted techniques for intimidation and control, as well as a flourishing subculture and network of communication," he told police. In even "the quiet community of Hempstead on Long Island," he said, "we've seen drive-by shootings riddle neighborhoods and innocent bystanders with bullets."
This popular narrative of the gangs' spread -- which posited that major Central American gangs such as Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street were sending out emissaries to strategically expand their territory -- was contradicted by, among others, the National Youth Gang Center, a Justice Department subsidiary. The center researchers cautioned that many of the new cliques sprouting up in far-flung cities and suburbs were copycats and that, "in most instances, there is little, if any, real connection between local groups with the same name other than the name itself." The gangs might have originated in Los Angeles and Central America, but they flourished in places like Fairfax, Virginia, and Nassau County, New York, because of specific local conditions there that facilitated immigrants' alienation and anger. According to the center, the gangs were generally "homegrown."
But the argument that the problem was coming from within was largely ignored. It was easier and more politically expedient to blame outsiders. In the 1990s, the country experienced an influx of new immigrants -- most of them Hispanic -- that matched the waves of Irish and Italians a century before. The new arrivals landed in places that previous waves of immigrants had rarely ventured, skipping urban centers and moving directly to the suburbs. By 2002, the majority of Hispanics in the United States were living in residential rings beyond the inner cities that had long acted as the country's welcome mat. In the 1980s, the number of Hispanics living in cities compared to the number in the suburbs was about the same, but after the 1990s suburban Hispanics outnumbered their urban counterparts by 18 percent. And while the suburbs of New York, Los Angeles, and Miami saw substantial increases in their already-large Hispanic populations, the growth was just as fast in places where previously only a handful of Hispanics had lived.
The immigrants were following jobs, which proliferated in the booming economy of the 1990s, and their presence helped to buoy the country's prosperity. They came to work, and the United States needed their labor. Some took jobs in manufacturing and agricultural processing in new growth centers like North Carolina and Tennessee. Others were drawn to construction work as the housing industry exploded. Many had plans to stay, and those who came legally applied to become U.S. citizens in large numbers.
Although the country was enjoying an economic boom, it was reaching levels of income inequality not seen since the first half of the 20th century. Communities and schools across the country, especially suburban ones, were becoming more racially segregated, and the opportunities the immigrants came searching for were increasingly elusive. The first generation of Hispanic immigrants on Long Island, many with battle scars from wars back home, found their presence was not just unwelcome but infuriating to many of their new neighbors -- some of whom aggressively campaigned to send them back home. Others reacted violently. Nationally, hate crimes against Hispanics rose 40 percent between 2003 and 2007. Immigrants on Long Island were victims of regular attacks that included the 2003 firebombing of a Mexican family's house and the 2008 fatal beating of an Ecuadorian man. The immigrants' children attended schools and played in streets as segregated as the Jim Crow South, and the racial achievement gap between the races, particularly for Hispanic students, was widening.
Many of the immigrants who arrived in Hempstead in the 1990s, including Jessica's family, found themselves in neighborhoods where they were easy targets for established American gangs; many were undocumented and did not have bank accounts, so they carried cash in their pockets on payday. When they were robbed, they were usually too scared of deportation to call police. To defend themselves, the men banded together. One group chose a name that borrowed the English of their aggressors: the Redondel Pride. They grew quickly.
The group was more than a gang. It also functioned as a support organization for the men, most of them day laborers. They raised a pot of money for members to draw from if they fell behind in rent or got sick, and they helped each other find work. Some members broke from Redondel Pride, which dissolved in the late 1990s, and named themselves Salvadorans With Pride. The plan was to promote themselves as a self-help group and to make it clear that they disdained violence. But as new members joined, their good intentions began to unravel. A series of altercations with other gangs escalated to a full-blown war. By the time Jessica joined, SWP was as much a gang as Mara Salvatrucha or 18th Street.
When news of a central American gang crisis hit in 2003, it ignited a nation well-primed to expect that violent immigrants were on the verge of invading its cul-de-sacs. The national reaction fit a well-documented pattern. Research on fear about crime has found that usually the people who are most afraid of it are not the ones most likely to be victimized. Gang members usually attack other gang members, but women and the elderly tend to be just as fearful of being targeted. Often their anxiety has little to do with actual crime levels. Instead, it stems from perceptions that a community is changing and, the fearful populace usually believes, for the worse.
Both local and federal politicians were quick to react to the national mood -- and the potential for votes. The gang problem became a popular topic on the campaign trail and the number of federal programs to combat gangs surged. Most focused on tracking down gang members and throwing them in jail. In 2005 the Department of Homeland Security started an anti-gang task force, Operation Community Shield, that carried out immigration sweeps in search of Mara Salvatrucha gang members. And in the years that followed, the federal government poured more and more money and resources into gang-prevention efforts. In 2007, the year men linked to Mara Salvatrucha shot a group of teenagers execution-style in a school playground in Newark, the Department of Justice dedicated millions of dollars to an in-school prevention program, Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.), which was modeled on D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a federally funded anti-drug program. It received mixed reviews by researchers studying its effectiveness.
Both Democrats and Republicans continued to sound alarms about the gang problem. The Homeland Security secretary under President George W. Bush, Michael Chertoff, regularly listed Mara Salvatrucha among the top threats to the country. "This is not yet an ideological organization, but it is an organization which has the capability to do an enormous amount of damage," Chertoff said in an April 2008 speech.
Yet the more attention paid to them -- and the more gang members swept up and sent back to Central America or to jail under the new federal initiatives -- the more the gangs seemed to spread. In 2005, the FBI had tracked Mara Salvatrucha to 33 states; by 2008, the agency said the gang was operating in 42. The FBI estimated that by 2008 there were at least 10,000 members of Mara Salvatrucha in the United States and ranked the gang's threat level as "high." The breathless media and law enforcement reports that characterized Mara Salvatrucha and 18th Street as the largest, most dangerous gangs in the world had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
In June 2008, the National Conference of State Legislatures, an elected body that serves as a think tank for state lawmakers, declared that gangs were still on the rise despite half a decade of concentrated law enforcement efforts and billions of dollars spent to bring them down. Echoing Gonzales' speech from three years earlier, the group warned that "while it was once only an inner-city problem, today gangs have spread nationwide to suburbs, small towns, and Native American reservations." The conference suggested that gangs had more money and power than before and that their fancier cars and guns were luring more young people to join.
But the truth was that the gangs' rise to power revealed not what they offered to a new generation of immigrants and their children but what America did not: safety, dignity, and a future.
Five years later, Jessica accompanies Sergio to presentations in schools, where she tells other kids her story: the cold nights sleeping in the park when her mother kicked her out, the time she held a friend in her arms after he was shot. She also tells them about the times she considered suicide. She explains how helpless and lonely she felt. Young people sometimes come up to her after her speeches to tell her their own stories. The helplessness has transformed into purpose. She has been hired as a counselor at a summer camp, and she thinks about her future and saving money.
Her dream is to get off of Long Island, and out of the suburbs, as soon as possible.
This article is adapted from Gangs in Garden City: How Immigration, Segregation, and Youth Violence are Changing America's Suburbs, published by Nation Books, 2009. Reprinted here with permission.