On Wednesday, the White House used the apparent murder of 20-year-old Iowa college student Mollie Tibbetts by undocumented Mexican immigrant Christian Bahena-Rivera to push anti-immigration messaging it had floated previously during the uproar over the Trump administration’s policy of separating families at the border. The “permanently separated” language is an explicit reference to that broad criticism directed at the Trump administration and an attempt to make the unsubtle point that separating undocumented immigrants from their sometimes infant children at the border is a small price to pay to keep American families from being “permanently separated” from their children.
To make this point, the White House released a meandering video of President Trump speaking directly to the camera about Mollie Tibbetts’ death before pivoting to his broader immigration beliefs.
“Mollie Tibbetts, an incredible young woman is now permanently separated from her family. A person came in from Mexico, illegally, and killed her. We need the wall. We need our immigration laws changed. We need our border laws changed. We need Republicans to do it because the Democrats aren’t going to do it. This is one instance of many. We have tremendous crime trying to come through the borders. We have the worst laws anywhere in the world. Nobody has laws like the United States. They are strictly pathetic. We need new immigration laws, we need new border laws, the Democrats will never give them. And the wall is being built. We’ve started it. But we also need the funding for this year’s building of the wall. So, to the family of Mollie Tibbitts, all I can say is: God bless you. God bless you.”
The White House simultaneously released a video (above) of the parents of children that describe, sometimes in vivid detail, how individuals they say were “not supposed to be here” killed their children in gruesome ways. “My separation is permanent,” they each conclude, hammering home the point.
This is not a new anti-immigration rallying cry to the Trump base, it was a repeated refrain of the Trump campaign going back to its birth at Trump Tower when then-candidate Trump referred to Mexicans coming to America as criminals and rapists. The message sharpened as the campaign went along with Trump parading the “Angel Moms” of slain children on-stage during a rally in Phoenix months before the election. In June, as attacks on the Trump administration ratcheted up in response to the outcomes of its cruel and explicit family separation policy, President Trump once again gathered families of people killed by undocumented immigrants to the White House to tell their stories. “We’re gathered today to hear directly from the American victims of illegal immigration. You know you hear the other side, you never hear this side. You don’t know what is going on,” Trump said at the time. “These are the American citizens permanently separated from their loved ones. The word permanently being the word that you have to think about. Permanently. They are not separated for a day or two days. Permanently separated.”
As Michelle Goldberg wrote in Slate after the Phoenix rally in Sept. 2016, the families deserve our sympathy, but the Trump administration is using their tragic loss perpetrated by a few violent criminals to paint the existence of a larger group as dangerous, threatening, criminal. “We rightly accord a measure of gravitas and moral authority to people who have suffered family tragedies, but that doesn’t mean we have to agree with them about the meaning of their loss,” Goldberg wrote. “White nationalists could assemble a group of people whose children were murdered by black Americans or by Jews, and it would not make their cause any more legitimate. All grief-stricken parents should move us personally, but they only move us politically to the extent that their pain connects to a broader cause.”
Experience and facts, however, indicate there is no broader social problem, no unifying theory that can be extrapolated from the experience of these parents, no matter how much empathy is shared. The rate of crime in America perpetrated by undocumented immigrants is no higher than that of native-born Americans. In fact, it’s lower. This, of course, doesn’t diminish the pain and suffering of those parents who have lost children, but it does show how that pain can be manipulated to justify a hypothetical masquerading as a false equivalency.