Two weeks ago President Trump described deported immigrants as “animals.”
Not long after, that verbal dehumanization was codified on an official White House press release entitled “What You Need to Know About the Violent Animals of MS-13.” While Trump and his supporters say he was specifically speaking about members of the gang MS-13, his track record on immigration issues leaves the possibility that he was talking about all immigrants from Central America.
And even if he was only talking about gang members, this kind of language is an extremely dangerous road to start down.
As many people rightfully pointed out, dehumanizing language is often the prelude to real, physical violence. Consider the Nazi depictions of Jews as “rats” and the Hutu depiction of Tutsis as “cockroaches” in Rwanda. And for examples closer to home, consider the depiction of Africans as “animals” to justify their enslavement and all its attendant brutality.
The argument over whether or not Trump was specifically referring to MS-13 members is semantic and mostly unimportant. The bigger issue is that people are people, regardless of who they are or where they are from, regardless of who they are, where they are from, or what they have done. And people have rights. In some cases, when people have been convicted of crimes, their rights are abridged, such as when people are imprisoned. The process by which we do that in the U.S. is tainted by systemic racism already. Categorizing any person as nonhuman will only make the abuses of our criminal justice system worse.
In 2016, a man died of dehydration in a Milwaukee County jail. Then-Sheriff David Clarke, who ran the jail, and his deputies had denied the prisoner, Terrill Thomas, water for seven days. Others in the jail reported hearing Thomas crying out and begging for water for days before his death. Clarke has been a vocal Trump supporter, and the president is likewise a fan of Clarke’s: Clarke was in talks for a position in the White House last year before John Kelly shut down that idea. Instead, Clarke has become a spokesman and senior advisor for a pro-Trump super PAC.
Last summer, Trump pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt for his illegal racial profiling in his crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Some other fun facts about Arpaio: he has proudly referred to his jails as “concentration camps,” and has addressed overcrowding by having inmates stay in tents outside in the Arizona heat. His devotion to hunting down undocumented immigrants is so strong that he often failed to actually investigate things like reported sexual assaults in his jurisdiction. During his tenure at Maricopa County, violence against inmates in his care was rife, and its perpetrators rarely punished.
Why would they be, when their boss clearly had such little regard for the lives of immigrants he viewed as criminal?
It’s also important to remember that the state decided what acts are criminal, and to what extent to pursue and punish that criminality.
Remember how the Obama administration decided that although marijuana possession and use was still a federal crime, it would no longer be a high priority for federal law enforcement? Now consider what crimes a Justice Department headed by Jeff Sessions will consider most important to punish, and in particular what criminals a man who was once denied a federal judgeship for a host of racist comments will crack down on the most.
The label of “criminal” has always been more than a specific descriptor of wrongdoing. It is also a broad brush to paint certain groups of people as unworthy of rights of the basic rights they are guaranteed by law. Using the term indiscriminately hurts people, and calling anyone who has committed a crime an animal makes that risk of violence worse.
At a rally on Tuesday night, Trump doubled down on his language, turning it into a new call-and-response chant with his supporters. In the 2016 election, his rallies were sites of violence against people his supporters decided didn’t belong. Cities that hosted him saw increases in violent assaults.
And he seems dead set on whipping up a greater frenzy of animosity towards immigrants.