One of the disturbing elements of the Trump Administration’s handling of immigration is its speed with which it brands undocumented immigrants “criminals.” Multiple studies show that the relationship it’s advancing between undocumented immigrants and lawlessness is simply wrong, but President Trump and Attorney General Sessions link them to criminal acts anyway. Sessions refers to parents who cross the U.S.-Mexico border without authorization as “smugglers” because smuggling sounds dangerous. The things they are smuggling are their children.
Trump called undocumented immigrants as “animals” last week in a round table discussion of California’s resistance to his anti-immigrant agenda. “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," he said. "You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”
The assertion that immigrants are animals prompted many on Twitter to make observations like this one:
It’s easy to dismiss what Trump said as nonsense & it’s easy to see discussion about its potential impact as hyperbolic, but there is a long tradition of entire groups of people being likened to animals before & during periods of mass violence against them.
Trump defenders insist that he was referring solely to the gang MS-13, but the quote doesn’t support that narrow a reading. Since Trump presented immigrants from Mexico as criminals, rapists, and smugglers in the speech that announced his candidacy for president, the broader understanding seems perfectly consistent.
Trump often equates undocumented immigrants with the gang MS-13, and when asked about his “animal” comment, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders doubled down on the proposition that undocumented immigrants are gang members and graphically described some of the gang’s violent actions. “If the media and liberals wanna defend MS-13, they're more than welcome to,” she said. “Frankly, I don’t think the term that the president used was strong enough. MS-13 has done heinous acts. It took an animal to stab a man 100 times and decapitate him and rip his heart out.”
Recently, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly tried to be the voice of reason. In an interview with NPR, he said, “Let me step back and tell you that the vast majority of the people that move illegally into United States are not bad people. They're not criminals. They're not MS-13. Some of them are not.”
Then he found another way to get to the idea that undocumented immigrants are less than human when he said, “They're also not people that would easily assimilate into the United States into our modern society. They're overwhelmingly rural people in the countries they come from–fourth, fifth, sixth grade educations are kind of the norm. They don't speak English, obviously that's a big thing. They don't speak English. They don't integrate well, they don't have skills.”
Kelly eventually returned to the script, but in less inflammatory terms. “They're not bad people,” he conceded. “They're coming here for a reason. And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws.”
Such dehumanizing language helps to rationalize the tactics used against undocumented immigrants. It’s easier for Americans to accept such cruel acts as separating children from their parents at the border or ICE manufacturing evidence to revoke a Dreamer’s DACA status and deport her if they think of the recipients of these acts as less than human.
Because Trump and Sessions are using the regulations to strengthen their ability to fight immigrants—with and without status—the mid-term election won’t change much on the immigration front. Immigrants need to zealously protect their status, stay in contact with an attorney to make certain that they don’t make decisions that could affect it, and seek professional consultation to see if avenues might be available for those without status.
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