For Donald Trump, crime and immigration are two sides of the same coin. He has been explicit about the connection since he announced his campaign for president in 2015: “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” He made it throughout the election. “Countless Americans who have died in recent years would be alive today if not for the open border policies of this administration,” he said during a 2016 speech in Arizona. And he has made it as president, routinely juxtaposing crime and immigration, with a particular focus on the gang MS-13. “You’ve seen the stories about some of these animals,” said Trump last year.
They don’t want to use guns, because it’s too fast and it’s not painful enough. So they’ll take a young, beautiful girl—16, 15, and others—and they slice them and dice them with a knife because they want them to go through excruciating pain before they die. And these are the animals that we’ve been protecting for so long. Well, they’re not being protected anymore, folks.
This is how Trump speaks, moving from lurid stories of criminal violence to jeremiads against “sanctuary cities” and illegal immigration back to condemnation of gangs and violence. And while he occasionally pauses to distinguish “criminal aliens” from law-abiding immigrants, the actual effect of this juxtaposition is to collapse the distinction between the two and lodge a particular relation in the minds of his listeners: Immigrants mean crime, and crime means immigrants.
At a roundtable discussion with California sheriffs on Wednesday, he blasted some immigrants as “animals” after one sheriff expressed frustration with “sanctuary” laws that preclude cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. “They can’t do all kinds of things that other law enforcement agencies can do. And it’s really put us in a very bad position,” said the sheriff, adding—as a hypothetical—that she wouldn’t know if a gang member was in her jail. “There could be an MS-13 member I know about—if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.”
Trump responded with his usual riff:
We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.
Democrats and other critics hit the president for attacking Hispanic immigrants as “animals,” while the White House and its conservative defenders pushed back, calling this a clear reference to MS-13 and other gangs associated with immigration from the southern border. “The president was very clearly referring to MS-13 gang members who enter the country illegally and whose deportations are hamstrung by our laws,” said press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. “This is one of the most vicious gangs that operates by the motto of rape, control, and kill. … If the media and liberals want to defend MS-13, they’re more than welcome to.”
Part of the problem is in the ambiguity of the remarks themselves. The sheriff in question is posing a hypothetical and Trump doesn’t actually respond to it, nor does he specify MS-13 members. His response is general, referring to “people” who are “bad” and who, he argues, are coming into the country at such a rate that it taxes the ability of the government to deal with them. “These are animals” is the only real clue that Trump is talking about MS-13 and not undocumented immigrants at large.
Even then, this broad, slippery language must be placed in the context of the president’s past rhetoric. You can’t divorce “these are animals” from “some, I assume, are good people.” To ignore Trump’s history and read his comments narrowly—thus giving him the benefit of the doubt—is to act as if he hasn’t built his political career on anti-immigrant scaremongering and demonization. There is no MS-13 invasion of the United States, but there’s a reason the gang is a staple of the president’s rhetoric: It dramatizes his imagined connection between immigrants and crime, forcing opponents into a defensive crouch as they try to criticize the link without defending the gang.
Even if Trump were plainly referring to MS-13, it’s still a step too far for the president of the United States to refer to anyone in the language of “animals.” Not only does it demonize, casting entire groups as subhuman, it opens a door to something worse than just rhetoric, and sends a signal to the agencies and officers tasked with enforcing the laws of the United States.
This particular signal is straightforward: They do not deserve respect or fair treatment. Who is “they?” It may be the gang members themselves, or it may be people accused of being gang members, regardless of the truth. It may be people who want to escape gang life but find themselves stigmatized. It may be entire communities, targeted as one of the president’s vectors for crime and disorder. Indeed, Trump has already obliterated the distinction between the law-abiding and the criminal in immigration enforcement, freeing ICE agents to detain and deport anyone they suspect of being “illegal.” The result is a surge in the arrests of immigrants without criminal records.
If there’s no difference in the president’s policies between criminal and law-abiding immigrants, why should we assume there’s a difference in his rhetoric?