Mother of Long Island Gang Victim Invited to the State of the Union

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Evelyn Rodriguez and Freddy Cuevas with a memorial for their daughter Kayla Cuevas, in September 2016, in Brentwood, N.Y. Ms. Rodriguez has been invited to the White House and to the State of the Union address. Credit Heather Walsh for The New York Times

Evelyn Rodriguez, whose daughter Kayla Cuevas was killed by MS-13 gang members on Long Island in 2016, says she will be in the audience as a guest of the White House when President Trump gives his State of the Union address on Tuesday.

She has also been invited to the White House before the address to meet with the president.

The murders of Kayla, 16, and her friend Nisa Mickens, 15, two American-born teenagers who were killed in a suburban cul-de-sac, became a flash point for the administration’s crackdown on illegal immigrants. Ms. Rodriguez, 49, was honored to be invited, but said, for her, it was not about immigration.

“I want him to ensure that we’re going to get the proper funding for the resources for our kids,” she said in an interview on Sunday from her Brentwood, Long Island, home before boarding a plane to Washington. “I’m not here for anybody’s political gain,” Ms. Rodriguez added. “I just want what’s right to be done. Everybody should put their political agenda aside and think about what’s going on in our country.”

Mr. Trump, and the attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in visits to the area last year, said the spate of MS-13 gang violence — 17 killings in Suffolk County in a 17-month span — was because of the recent increase in illegal immigration of young people from Central America. They vowed to destroy MS-13, the gang founded in Los Angeles by Salvadoran refugees in the late 1980s that now has 10,000 members across the country.

Mr. Trump has highlighted victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants before, inviting them to be his guests at his first address to Congress last year. The White House did not immediately respond to an email about Ms. Rodriguez’s invitation to the State of the Union.

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It has been nearly a year since federal authorities, in cooperation with the Suffolk County Police, said the two teenage girls were killed by members of MS-13. Last March, they arrested 13 adult members of MS-13, four of whom were charged in the deaths of Kayla and Nisa, who were students at Brentwood High School. Three of those four were undocumented immigrants.

Kayla had been feuding with MS-13 members at school and on social media, prosecutors have said, and Nisa was with her on Sept. 13, 2016, when the gang members attacked as they were walking down a street at about 8:30 p.m. Both girls were bludgeoned to death with baseball bats and machetes.

Then, a month later, four Latino young men — three of whom were immigrants — were killed in the woods behind a soccer field in nearby Central Islip. The authorities said members of MS-13 were responsible.

That prompted Mr. Sessions to come to Central Islip two weeks later to declare war on the gang. Ms. Rodriguez met with Mr. Sessions, and told him that the problems began in the schools that were woefully underfunded and ill-equipped to deal with the thousands of young Central American immigrants who had fled to the area.

More than 4,000 school-age migrants came as unaccompanied minors to the Brentwood School District alone over the past several years, officials have said.

In October, the Justice Department gave the Suffolk County Police Department a $500,000 grant to fight gang violence and to create programs for gang prevention.

Ms. Rodriguez says she hopes to get the same kind of commitment from the president at this meeting.

Ms. Rodriguez is a registered Democrat, raised in the South Bronx and Puerto Rico before moving to Brentwood with her family. She has been a persistent advocate since her daughter died, working with relatives of the MS-13 victims, including immigrant families, and also supporting the Suffolk County Police Department’s aggressive efforts to arrest criminals. She sued the Brentwood School District for negligence in protecting her daughter; the suit is continuing.

When Mr. Trump visited Suffolk County in July, Ms. Rodriguez was also invited to be in the audience. She was ready with her clipboard of ideas, which included asking Mr. Trump for federal money for gang prevention and social services. But she never got the chance.

Ms. Rodriguez has a nuanced position on immigration and illegal immigration, specifically. “Immigration is not my forte,” she said. “What I’ve been saying from Day 1: Everybody has the right for the American dream and that should be there for them. They’re good people, they give back to the community.”

What upsets her are the people who come here illegally and commit crimes, she said.

Ms. Rodriguez was named to the transition team for the district attorney of Suffolk County, Timothy D. Sini, a Democrat, who took office on Jan. 2. Mr. Sini had been the police commissioner. She has been working with Barbara Medina, a crime victims’ advocate, to arrange support groups for the families of the boys killed in April, two of whom were undocumented. The two women traveled together to Washington.

Mr. Sini said on Sunday that he was pleased for Ms. Rodriguez: “Evelyn’s been a tremendous resource for the Suffolk County Police Department, the D.A.’s office, to me personally, and she will undoubtedly use this opportunity fight for resources and raise awareness about issues that are important for law enforcement and victims.”

Though Ms. Rodriguez admits she is quite nervous, she says she is going to Washington to honor her daughter’s legacy. “She’s opening more doors for me, where one door shuts, two doors open,” she said of Kayla. “Who would have thought that President Trump would speak with me?”

But then she added: “I’m a real person. I’m not out for any type of gain for myself, it’s always been for the kids.”

Continue reading the main story

Her Daughter Was Killed by a Gang. She Has a Message for Trump.

On Long Island, Sessions Vows to Eradicate MS-13 Gang

‘They Keep Finding Bodies’: Gang Violence in Long Island Town Fuels Immigration Debate

Her Daughter Was Killed by a Gang. She Has a Message for Trump.

On Long Island, Sessions Vows to Eradicate MS-13 Gang

‘They Keep Finding Bodies’: Gang Violence in Long Island Town Fuels Immigration Debate

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