The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Another cruel and dehumanizing presidential tirade on immigration

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Demonstration on May 30, 2018 protesting the recent killing of Guatemalan women, Claudia Gonzalez, at the US-Mexico border. (Photo: Diane Greene Lent)

Once again the president’s rhetoric on immigrants sets an inaccurate and dangerous tone.

“We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them… You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.”

–So declared the 45th President of the United States in a White House discussion on how to prosecute immigrants who are living in sanctuary cities. After the public uproar, White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ claimed  the commander in chief was only referring to members of the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang, a position repeated on the official website of the White House “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS13 [sic]” and repeated at a Long Island roundtable on immigration.

This is wrong and dangerous on so many levels it is hard to know where to begin.

First, there is the issue of referring to people as animals. This is dehumanizing and cruel. History and studies show that when an individual or a population is perceived as sub-human, violence against them is believed to be more justified. Leaders in Nazi Germany referred to Jewish people as rats and during the Rwandan genocide, Hutu officials called Tutsis “cockroaches” that needed to be exterminated. While not all dehumanization results in genocide, it does increase intolerance, racial profiling, and violence. The FBI data for 2017 showed that the number of hate crimes in the first year of the Trump administration rose 5 percent to 6,100 (about 17 a day) and that race was the primary factor in nearly 60 percent of the cases.

There’s another side to this that has implications for other countries too. Governments take their cues from what the president of the United States says and doesn’t say. In many countries where Oxfam works, governments are trying to roll back hard fought advances such as anti-corruption measures in Guatemala or, are actively rolling back people’s rights. For example, the criminalization of people who exercise their rights to freedom of expression in Honduras or the extra-judicial killings of suspected drug dealers and consumers in the Philippines, where 12,000 people have been killed in the 20 months since President Duterte took office. President Trump’s dehumanizing rhetoric is a virtual green light to many governments that they will get a pass from the US when they violate human rights.

Let’s be clear, few can deny that the gangs in Central America are violent or that gang violence is one of the reasons why so many people are fleeing in the first place. The non-governmental organization Kids in Needs of Defense (KIND), for example, released a powerful 2017 report titled “Neither Security nor Justice: Sexual and Gender-based Violence and Gang Violence El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala” which documented how gang members regularly employ rape to discipline women and girls to demonstrate the gang’s dominance over the community. However, labeling them animals robs us from seeing their humanity and understanding this complex political, social and economic context that gave rise to the gangs. It ignores the fact that the MS-13 makes up less than one percent of all criminally active gang members in the United States and Puerto Rico. And lastly, it denies the fact that many of those who are arriving at the US border are desperately seeking to escape the clutches of the gangs.

This administration has repeatedly equated Latinos, Mexicans, and Central Americans with criminals and rapists, and linked them to the gangs in order to justify harsh and inhumane immigration policies. Just recently, the Trump administration instituted a zero tolerance policy that forcibly separates parents crossing the US-Mexican border from their children, many seeking asylum, fleeing gang and organized crime violence in their home countries.

Along with being incredibly inhumane and dangerous, such rhetoric and policies are contradictory and undermine US political interests. On May 8, the Washington Post published an article titled “U.S. embassy cables warned against expelling 300,000 immigrants. Trump officials did it anyway.” The article revealed that high level State Department officials, including the former Secretary of State, disregarded the warnings from experts and senior diplomats from US embassies in Haiti, El Salvador, and Honduras that ending Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for these countries would have a direct and negative impact on the bilateral cooperation required to combat transnational criminal organizations, such as MS-13 in Honduras and El Salvador. The diplomats also warned that the three governments do not have the capacity to absorb over 300,000 deportees from the US, nor can they guarantee the safety of the deported TPS beneficiaries or their US-born children.

By using dehumanizing language, conflating immigrants with criminals, deporting immigrants and their children to countries that are not safe, we also undermine US policy in the region. This is all simply wrong and we need a humane immigration policy that respects the complexity of the situation, and most importantly, people’s lives.

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