Trump Thinks Migrants Are a Political Weapon

The president’s sanctuary cities plan tells us nothing about immigrants—but a lot about his malice.

Donald Trump.
President Donald Trump in Washington on Friday.
Tom Brenner/Getty Images

President Donald Trump has a plan to intimidate voters who disagree with him. His plan is to send violent criminals to their neighborhoods.

The plan won’t work, because the people Trump wants to send—undocumented immigrants—aren’t actually violent criminals. Every fact-checking organization has found that these immigrants, contrary to Trump’s assertions, don’t commit crimes at higher rates than native-born Americans do—and may, in fact, commit crimes at a lower rate. But Trump thinks they’re dangerous. And that makes them, in his mind, a useful weapon against his domestic opponents.

One of Trump’s goals in promoting this plan is to smear undocumented immigrants. So it’s important to distinguish the truth—that these people are no more dangerous than anyone else you’d meet on the street—from the fiction in Trump’s head. But the pathology of Trump’s intent is still worth examining. He believes that he’s using crime and chaos to punish his enemies. So although his plan tells us nothing about immigrants, it tells us a lot about Trump. It exposes the extent of his malice. And it confirms that he’s willing to use violence as a political weapon.

Trump has long portrayed Hispanics and Latin Americans as thugs. In 2013, he tweeted, “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and Hispanics.” In 2015, he launched his campaign by vilifying immigrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” A year ago, he complained that the United States was being “forced to take large numbers of people from high crime countries.”

Last fall, Trump focused the GOP’s midterm election message on “criminal aliens.” He told voters, falsely, that migrant caravans approaching the United States were full of thugs. Based on misrepresented data, he blamed immigrants for “48,000 assaults, 12,000 sex crimes, and 1,800 homicides.” He claimed that Democrats “want America to be a giant sanctuary city for drug dealers, predators, and bloodthirsty MS-13 killers. Republicans believe America should be a sanctuary for law-abiding Americans, not criminal aliens.” At every campaign stop, Trump warned the crowd, “If you want more caravans and more crime, vote Democrat.”

The scare campaign failed. Voters elected Democrats to take over the House. And so, a week after the election, the Trump administration decided to teach them a lesson. In an email to federal agencies, the White House proposed that “caravan members be bussed to small- and mid-sized sanctuary cities.”

While the White House peddled this idea backstage, Trump continued to tell the public that the migrants were killers. “Each year, sanctuary cities release thousands of known criminal aliens from their custody and right back into the community,” he declared in a Dec. 7 speech to the Project Safe Neighborhoods National Conference. “American politicians should protect American citizens, not criminal aliens,” said Trump. “Illegal immigration is a threat to the well-being of every American community, threatening innocent families.”

In January, Trump doubled the inflated numbers he was using to demonize migrants. He accused illegal aliens of “100,000 assaults, 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings.” In an exchange at the White House on Feb. 15, he dismissed data that showed undocumented immigrants were less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes. “The numbers that you gave are wrong,” Trump told reporters.

Around that time, in mid-February, the White House renewed its campaign to transfer migrants to the districts of the president’s political adversaries. One version of the plan, as relayed by federal officials and paraphrased by the Washington Post, was “to bus migrants apprehended at the border to sanctuary cities, such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco.” Another version was “to move migrants who were already in ICE detention to the districts of Democratic opponents.”

One purpose of the plan, according to the White House, was to relieve stress on border towns overcrowded by a surge of migrants. But the other purpose was political: to punish Democrats for refusing to fund Trump’s border agenda. According to a Department of Homeland Security official quoted by the Post, the White House made clear that the proposal “was retaliation, to show [Democrats], ‘Your lack of cooperation has impacts.’ … [T]hey thought it would put pressure on those communities.” A congressional investigator gave a similar account: “Stephen Miller called people at ICE [and] said if they’re going to cut funding, you’ve got to make sure you’re releasing people in Pelosi’s district and other congressional districts.” New York Times sources confirmed that the White House sent essentially the same message.

On Thursday, when the Post disclosed the relocation plan, the White House denied it. But on Friday, Trump endorsed the plan. “Due to the fact that Democrats are unwilling to change our very dangerous immigration laws, we are indeed, as reported, giving strong considerations to placing Illegal Immigrants in Sanctuary Cities,” Trump tweeted. Two hours later, he told reporters why, in his view, these migrants were dangerous: “In many cases, they’re rough gang members. In many cases, they’re people with tremendous crime records.” As to the relocation plan, the president concluded: “So we are looking at the possibility. Strongly looking at it.”

Trump framed the proposal as a threat against Democrats. “We can give them an unlimited supply” of illegal immigrants, he told reporters. “Let’s see if they’re so happy.” On Saturday, Trump warned, “Democrats must change the Immigration Laws FAST. If not, Sanctuary Cities must immediately ACT to take care of the Illegal Immigrants - and this includes Gang Members, Drug Dealers, Human Traffickers, and Criminals.” On Monday, he announced that he would implement the plan.

Objectively, Trump’s statements about undocumented immigrants, like his statements about everything else, are worthless. These people are no more dangerous, statistically, than people born in the United States. But subjectively, as a window into Trump’s mind, the president’s statements are damning. He believes that a specific population is prone to violent crime, so he concludes that this population is a weapon he can use. He proposes to dump this population onto the streets of Democratic cities and districts in order to harm and frighten his political opponents.

Trump could have chosen any of the populations he has mocked or slandered—Mexicans, Muslims, Arabs, Haitians, Africans, black Americans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, Native Americans—as his weapon in this scare campaign. The mockery and the slander are vile enough. But in this case, there’s an extra twist. The twist is that Trump, the president who talks so much about rape and murder, is promoting a plan whose purpose, as he sees it, is to inflict criminal violence on Americans he doesn’t like. It’s not the migrants who want to hurt you. It’s the president of the United States.