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Would a border wall stop Utah’s gang problem?

This July 26, 2018, file photo shows people lining up to cross into the United States to begin the process of applying for asylum near the San Ysidro port of entry in Tijuana, Mexico. (Credit: Gregory Bull, AP)

SALT LAKE CITY — Much of the debate over building a border security wall or fence centers on whether it would prevent drug trafficking and gang violence. In part three of our series, Answers about the Wall, KSL takes a look at the potential impact on gangs.

Lt. Mike Schoenfeld from the Salt Lake Area Gang Project believes a border wall with Mexico would help.

“I think it does. That’s just my personal opinion,” he said.

The department has not taken a position on the issue, but Schoenfeld estimates illegal immigrants make up less than five percent of our gangs.

He thinks legal refugees from South America and, to a smaller extent, the Middle East and Somalia are a bigger problem. More of them, he says, are being recruited online — some as young as 10-years-old — and they’re being brought into those gangs by other refugees.

Many of the recruits are drawn in by what Schoenfeld calls “the hip-hop lifestyle” and see it as a way to Americanize themselves.

The El Salvadorean gang MS-13, which has been a target of President Trump’s anger, has very few members here. Instead, he says refugees and illegal immigrants are drawn to the Bloods, Nortenos, and Surenos — California imports that are not divided along racial lines in Utah.

Schoenfeld says the overwhelming majority of gang members in Utah are homegrown. They don’t dress conspicuously, so people may attend school or church with a gang member and not even know it.

He says taking the anti-gang initiatives online may be the key to solving the problem because many of those kids are spending seven to eight hours a day on their phone, becoming prime targets for recruiters.