On Tuesday night, the president will deliver his first State of the Union address, and one person he invited to the highly anticipated event is Evelyn Rodriguez, the mother of a young girl who was killed by MS-13 gang members in 2016. Since her daughter, Kayla Cuevas, died, Trump has often mentioned the story as a reason to justify strict immigration laws, including a border wall.
The MS-13 gang, which has roots in Los Angeles and El Salvador, was responsible for roughly a murder a month in Suffolk County, New York, in 2016. Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions attributed the high killings in the area to the increase in illegal immigration of young people from Central America. When he visited Suffolk County Community College in 2017, Trump said aggressive immigration reform is the answer to the gang violence.
But for Rodriguez, a 49-year-old mother who grew up in Puerto Rico until sixth grade and then the South Bronx, this isn't an immigration issue. While she said she's "honored" to attend the State of the Union, she doesn't want to be turned into a political talking point.
“I want [Trump] to ensure that we’re going to get the proper funding for the resources for our kids,” she told the Times, before boarding a plane to Washington D.C. “I’m not here for anybody’s political gain. 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.”
Rodriguez's daughter's body was found, as was her best friend, 15-year-old Nisa Mickens. According to reports, gang members had attempted to kidnap Cuevas, and Mickens stepped in to save her. For months prior to the girls' deaths, Rodriguez, who graduated the from their same high school, Brentwood Ross High School, in 1987, had complained to the school district about the growing gang violence.
“To me, it’s worse than it was before; it’s everywhere,” Rodriguez told the Times. “This is ridiculous. We need some type of assistance to help our police officers here and see if they can come together to figure out a plan to make things better for the kids now.”
Since the murder of her daughter, Rodriguez has channeled her grief into protecting and defending other victims of gang violence. In 2017, she met with the president when he visited Suffolk County Community College soon after several gang members had been arrested for the murders of four young Latino boys.
At the time, Rodriguez stressed that she didn't want to make her daughter's death about immigration. “I’m going to break it down for him,” she said of meeting Trump. “‘Look, I’m not here to tell you how to do your job; I’m not here to talk about immigration.’”
While she does agree with Trump that immigrants who are criminals should not be allowed to remain in the country, she doesn't believe in the same stringent immigration laws as the president, and hasn't commented on supporting any kind of border wall.
“I believe everybody has a chance to make it in the United States, but if you’re coming here to be a criminal and to be garbage, then we don’t need you," she told the Times. "But if you’re here to do the right thing for your family and work hard, I back you up.”
What she does want Trump to focus on, however, is providing more services for the communities that are affected the most by gang violence, or at the very least, stop reducing funds for those programs.
“Stop cutting our funding,” she said. “The more you cut services, the more our kids are going to be out on the street, getting into mischief. We got to do something. We cannot let this continue.”