On July 28, President Trump stood before law enforcement officials in Long Island, New York and delivered a disturbing message: Immigrants are “animals” that are turning the nation’s parks and neighborhoods into “bloodstained killing fields.”
Through his lurid account of recent murders committed on Long Island by members of MS-13—a gang active in the U.S., El Salvador and Honduras—Trump painted a picture of America under attack. He compared towns on Long Island to “the old Wild West,” where criminals “rape,” “rob,” and “prey on children.”
While it’s true that MS-13 was responsible for 17 murders on Long Island in the past two years, Trump’s account of the crimes is misleading. Most troubling of all, he conflates members of MS-13 and other violent criminals with immigrants more broadly. “They were all let in here over a relatively short period of time,” he says. “But… they’re going to jails, and then they’re going back to their country.”
Trump’s linking of violent crime with immigrants isn’t just implicit. He explains that the previous administration’s “failure to enforce our immigration laws” has directly resulted in “drugs, gangs and violence.” These statements are simply untrue. Higher immigration is actually associated with lower crime rates. Moreover, first-generation immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to commit violent crimes.
In some ways, Trump’s speech is a reformulation of his earlier statements on immigration and violence. On the day he announced his bid for the presidency, he implied that all Mexicans coming to the U.S. were criminals and rapists. Even his portrayal of “bloodstained killing fields” is reminiscent of the “American carnage” he described in his Inaugural Address.
But today, these statements do more than drum up political support for a presidential candidate or satisfy a group of loyal supporters; uttered before a crowd of law enforcement officers, these depictions help justify the administration’s foolish immigration policies (like the travel ban) and help criminalize immigrants—particularly Latinos. In his speech, Trump reiterated the need to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall, the funds for which were approved in the House last week. He has also asked Congress to fund an additional 10,000 ICE officers in order “to eliminate MS-13 and root out the criminal cartels from our country.” Between January and May of 2017, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made 10,800 non-criminal immigrant arrests—that’s a 150 percent increase from the same period the year before.
Rounding up undocumented immigrants who have not committed crimes (or who have committed minor offenses like traffic violations), does not make America safer. Instead, these efforts, though enacted in the name of “security,” create a profound sense of insecurity for many brown and black individuals living in the U.S. They also do not reduce violent crime. In fact, evidence suggests that MS-13 has gotten stronger during Trump’s presidency. Fearing deportation, many witnesses have been too afraid to come forward to report crimes or offer information.
Trump’s depiction of immigrants as “animals” who “prey” on Americans also serves another, more chilling purpose: it encourages police brutality. Referring to individuals as subhuman reduces our ability feel empathy towards them. This seems to be precisely what Trump wants. He explicitly urged the police officers before him to use greater physical force when making arrests. “You see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon—you just see them thrown in, rough—I said, please don’t be too nice.” With police departments across the country facing accusations of police brutality and struggling to overcome decades of systemic racism, Trump’s message is irresponsible and morally reprehensible. It’s also an affront to the millions of black and brown people who feel their lives don’t matter in America.
How can Americans fight back against the Trump administration’s policies and resist its attempt to criminalize immigrants? They can start by upending the false and dangerous representations Trump has put forth.
Law enforcement officials have already begun. Shortly after the speech, police officials and organizations from around the country denounced the president’s remarks. The Suffolk County Police Department tweeted, “As a department, we do not and will not tolerate [the] roughing up of prisoners.” The International Association of Chiefs of Police released a statement calling respectful treatment of all individuals a “bedrock principle” of police legitimacy.
Trump’s unsettling words came just hours after the defeat of the Senate healthcare bill, at a time when chaos and controversy is brewing in the White House and the president’s approval ratings have hit an all-time low. So it’s no wonder Trump has rehashed the rhetoric that once galvanized his conservative supporters.
But talk isn’t just talk, and Trump’s words lend credence to policies that are criminalizing and terrorizing immigrants across the country. If we want to put a stop to this, we first need to repeal and replace Trump’s language.