The Slatest

Trump Wants to Use the Death of an NFL Player to Goose His Anti-Immigrant Agenda

Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson during a 2016 NFL game.
Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson during a 2016 NFL game.
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

President Donald Trump may have found a fresh piece of anti-immigrant propaganda just in time for the biggest legislative immigration fight of his presidency. But there’s also reason to think that any attempt to exploit the death of Indianapolis Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson won’t play out so easily for Trump and Republican allies.

On Tuesday, the president tweeted about Jackson, who was killed over the weekend allegedly by a drunk driver who had previously been deported twice for entering the country illegally.

Jackson’s death is by no means the first one Trump has used as part of an overarching effort to smear immigrants as potential killers and to advocate his hard-line anti-immigration agenda. As I reported over the summer, Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination took off after he began to use the death of Kate Steinle as a way of justifying his xenophobic campaign launch calling Mexican and other immigrants “killers and rapists.” Of course, we now know which sort of immigrant Trump thinks is ideal after his reported remarks last month about “shithole countries” and his desire for more immigration from countries like “Norway.” (Hint: white ones.)

It’s unclear to what extent Jackson’s death will become another Republican crusade, like that of Steinle, whose name has since become shorthand for a now common conservative notion that innocent white women are being killed en masse by a supposed barbarous undocumented immigrant horde. In a twist in that case, the shooter, Jose Ines Garcia Zarate, was acquitted of murder late last year after his jury found that the shooting had been accidental. The evidence for this was clear but ignored by Trump, Paul Ryan, and Jeff Sessions, who at various points all pointed to Garcia Zarate as a cold-blooded killer whose presence in the U.S. demonstrated why anti-immigrant Republican policies were needed.

Conservative media has started to put Jackson’s death in the same category. Fox & Friends ran a segment Tuesday morning saying that “for Republicans and for the president, it’s a prime example of why the country needs a secure border.” Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, meanwhile, said this:

We must do more to get these dangerous illegal immigrant criminals off of our streets, and guarantee this never happens again by building a wall, ending sanctuary cities, and stopping illegal immigration once and for all.

For his part, Trump followed up this morning’s tweets with others pushing a hard-line deal to limit legal immigration ahead of negotiations surrounding the potential renewal of some form of DACA:

Breitbart also led its site in the morning with a headline quoting Trump, along with a link to a video of a press club event by a group that touts the stories of families who have lost loved ones to crimes that were committed by people in this country without documentation. During that event, photos of these family members’ dead relatives were literally held up as props to demonstrate the horrors of immigration.

Of course, this trope of “criminal aliens” is not based in reality. Numerous studies have shown that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the rest of the population, while crime rates in cities with large immigrant populations have gone down disproportionately in recent years. The truth will not stop Breitbart from promoting its anti-immigrant myths, but maybe this argument has started to lose some weight even on the right. By lunchtime on Tuesday, Jackson was no longer the site’s top story, having been replaced by a post about John McCain and FISA warrants.

Indeed, what made the Steinle case so potent was how it overlapped with the start of the Trump campaign, along with the freshness and blunt xenophobia of the Trump message. For years, most Republicans had been reluctant to outright state bigoted views about immigrants, in the hopes of maintaining the possibility of some segment of Hispanics being a part of the GOP coalition. Trump came along, upended that model, and made a lot of noise doing it. Steinle’s death happened to occur at the same time, and she quickly became a poster child.

Trump also used others like Steinle on the campaign trail, prominently featuring, for example, the story of another black football player who was killed by someone who happened to be an undocumented immigrant. Shortly after Steinle’s death, Trump started touring the country with the father of the black high school football player, Jamiel Shaw, who Trump loudly proclaimed had been “shot by an animal, an animal that shouldn’t have been in this country.”

The Shaw story never took off in the same way that the Steinle one did, but it was a regular feature of Trump’s early campaign for a long while. Perhaps it never gained the same traction because the purpose of telling the Shaw story was different from the Steinle message. “Shaw’s story allowed Trump to tell the ‘white fear’ Steinle story while insulating Trump to some degree from reprisal,” law professor Christopher N. Lasch wrote in a journal article published in 2016. He continued:

Pushing forward the Shaw narrative gave the Trump campaign the potential to accomplish several goals: to promote the anti-Latino (and more specifically, anti-Mexican) narrative that would justify a “great wall” on the southern border with Mexico; to court the African American vote; to divide African American voters from Latino voters; and of course to “shield against accusations of racism.”

As Lasch noted, within Trump’s racist and sexist contours, “beautiful Kate” Steinle and Shaw had very different roles:

Trump’s epithets [served] to elevate his own gender and racial superiority by portraying Trump as the white male hero who can protect not only the beautiful white women of the world but also African American inner-city youth who, by virtue of their athleticism, might yet make good for themselves, but for the threat of marauding Mexican immigrants.

In contrast to how Shaw’s father felt, it’s already come out that Jackson would likely not have wanted to be held up by the president as a political football. Jackson also was not a prominent figure in the NFL: In fact he did not play a single down last season due to injury. Perhaps these facts—along with the lack of a more recent “beautiful” female victim to contrast Jackson with—will make this episode less easy for Trump to grip onto in order to sell his anti-immigrant agenda.

Or perhaps we’ve all seen this show before and even Trump’s own supporters are starting to become bored by it.

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Jeremy Stahl

Jeremy Stahl is a Slate senior editor.