President Trump’s comment calling certain immigrants being “animals” was met with frustration this week, but his supporters say the condemnation is largely overblown.
A closer look at the president’s words however — and the context surrounding them — proves his critics may have a point.
Wednesday afternoon, Trump held a roundtable discussion at the White House with officials from California who oppose the state’s “sanctuary” law. During the meeting, Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims expressed frustration over the law, signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) last fall, that prohibits police officers from informing U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) about undocumented immigrants in the state’s jails, even if they are believed to be part of a gang.
“There could be an MS-13 gang member I know about,” Mims said. “[But] if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about them.”
Trump responded, nodding his head in agreement. “We have people coming into the country — or trying to come in, 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,” he said.
The comment immediately went viral, with media pundits and public figures alike registering their shock on social media.
The president’s staunchest supporters and those on the right, however, have defended him, claiming Trump was referring to the Salvadorean gang MS-13 when he called immigrants “animals.”
“Weird what happens when you take out the first sentence [of his quote] specifically talking about MS-13 gang members,” Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., tweeted on Thursday, referring to a New York Times tweet on the subject. “Not surprising that you would conveniently ignore that but I would think your readers deserve the truth not your chosen narrative. How does this even pass for ‘journalism?'”
Weird what happenes when you take out the first sentence specifically talking about MS-13 gang members. Not surprising that you would conveniently ignore that but I would think your readers deserve the truth not your chosen narrative. How does this even pass for “journalism”? https://t.co/fb6MRzUAjW
— Donald Trump Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr) May 17, 2018
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway also weighed in, tweeting that the media owed Trump an apology.
“Others who rushed to judgment to get the President rather than to get the story owe @POTUS – and the grieving loved ones who have lost family members to gang violence – an apology,” she wrote.
Others who rushed to judgment to get the President rather than to get the story owe @POTUS – and the grieving loved ones who have lost family members to gang violence – an apology. https://t.co/vLU4SgKpux
— Kellyanne Conway (@KellyannePolls) May 17, 2018
Even revered media outlets like the Associated Press have since decided that Trump was referring only to gang members when he made his comments on Wednesday, rather than immigrants in general.
AP has deleted a tweet from late Wednesday on Trump’s “animals” comment about immigrants because it wasn’t made clear that he was speaking after a comment about gang members.
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 17, 2018
Contrary to those assertions, however, Trump wasn’t solely talking about MS-13 or gang members when he made his comments on Wednesday. At no point in his response did Trump say the words “MS-13” or “gang members” — rather, as the video shows, he was simply following Mims’ comments, shifting gears and explaining that his administration was cracking down on undocumented immigrants, deporting those he considered to be “animals” or “bad” people.
There's been a lot of question about whether he was taken out of context when he referred to "animals" and that he was supposedly only talking about MS-13 gang members. That's not quite true. It's actually a broader discussion about who local PDs can work with ICE. Watch. pic.twitter.com/QxxsEP1XCa
— Josh Marshall (@joshtpm) May 17, 2018
Trump, for his part, never clarified the intention of his comments. However, in the past, he has repeatedly conflated immigration with crime and has used that fear to bolster his own immigration policies — to assume he was doing the same on Wednesday, then, wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.
Immigration fear-mongering has been the cornerstone of Trump’s campaign and presidential tenure since day one, when he stood in the lobby of Trump Tower and proclaimed Mexico “isn’t sending their best,” but rather, “they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists — and some, I assume, are good people.”
During the State of the Union address late January, the president recognized two families from Long Island whose daughters had been killed by MS-13 gang members and used their tragedy to promote strict immigration policies that would, in fact, affect non-criminal immigrants.
“Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors,” Trump said. “Tonight I am calling on Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country.”
Trump then went on to outline his immigration plan, which included restrictions on family-based immigration, ending the visa lottery program in favor of a “merit-based” immigration system (the visa lottery is already considered “merit-based”), and adding $25 billion in funding for a wall along the southern U.S. border with Mexico.
In a July speech before police recruits in Suffolk County, Long Island last year, Trump called for police and immigration officials to be “rough” with suspected gang members, and urged them to rid the country of “animals.”
In graphic detail he described the gangs’ cruelty to victims shortly before using the violence to pivot to speaking about the damages of an “open-door” immigration policy.
“The previous administration enacted an open-door policy to illegal immigrants from Central America,’’ he said. “As a result, MS-13 surged into the country and scoured, just absolutely destroyed, so much in front of it.”
Using gang violence to justify immigration policy is dangerous for a number of reasons, none more pressing than the actual harm it is causing to non-criminal immigrants.
On Tuesday, for instance, a U.S District Court judge shot down the federal government’s efforts to strip a DACA recipient of his status. Daniel Ramirez Medina was arrested by ICE last year after the agency claimed he was affiliated with a gang and attempted to deport him. Ramirez subsequently filed suit, alleging that ICE had violated his due process rights. The judge agreed and ultimately accused the agency of lying to a court of law after there proved to be no evidence that Ramirez was affiliated with any gang.
Ramirez’s case is not the only one of this nature. ICE routinely arrests Latinx immigrants it claims are gang members, using the broad authority afforded them by the Trump administration to do so.
Trump’s broader anti-immigrant rhetoric has put a number of non-criminal immigrants in danger. The number of non-criminal immigrant arrests by ICE nearly doubled in 2017. The uptick can be traced back to the Trump administration’s harsh immigration policies, including a push from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions to crackdown on criminal illegal immigrant arrests — a policy supported by President Trump.