Is Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez the new Willie Horton?

There are some people who would obviously like him to be. The story, which is about an undocumented immigrant who allegedly murdered a young woman in San Francisco named Kathryn Steinle after having been released from jail, has gone national. And it’s working its way into the presidential campaign. The way the candidates deal with it (or not) will tell us a lot about the state of immigration politics today.

It’s important to understand that there’s no consensus even on the right about how much attention to give to Lopez-Sanchez’s case. Most of the Republican candidates are treading carefully so far. While they oppose the “sanctuary city” policies that meant that Lopez-Sanchez wasn’t turned over to immigration authorities when he had been arrested for lesser crimes, they haven’t yet tried to use this case as a bludgeon to attack Democrats. (The unsurprising exception to this is Donald Trump; meanwhile, for the record, many Democrats have said that a sanctuary city policy should still have allowed someone like Lopez-Sanchez to be turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.)

Yet at the same time, conservative talk radio and Fox News are practically vibrating with delight over this story. When I checked in to the network’s web site this morning, it was the subject not only of the main screaming headline, but five other written stories and four videos, with more coming all the time.

What does this one case tell us about crime in America and our immigration policies? The real answer is not much, because one case is always just one case. According to the latest FBI crime statistics, around 38 Americans are murdered each and every day; every one is a tragedy. We know that as a group, immigrants are actually much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. And though it illustrates an extreme negative consequence that can come from a sanctuary city policy, police in cities with sanctuary policies often argue that they help fight crime by allowing residents of immigrant communities to work with law enforcement without the fear that they’ll be turned over to immigration authorities.

Nevertheless, we’re always looking for individual stories through which we can understand larger issues, and those stories can be used for good or ill. For instance, the case of Ryan White, an Indiana teenager who contracted HIV in 1984, taught the country that AIDS wasn’t just a disease of people who (at the time) were on the fringes of society; after his death in 1990, Congress passed a bill expanding funding for AIDS research and treatment in his name. Then there are stories like Horton’s, which was supposedly about criminal justice policies but was actually just a way for George H.W. Bush to stir up racist fears among white voters in the 1988 election.

If Republican candidates are treading more carefully with regard to this story, it isn’t just because the two cases are different — it’s because there’s serious political danger in trying to make Lopez-Sanchez a reason why people should vote against Democrats. Don’t forget that Bush’s use of Willie Horton worked. Laden with the theme of dangerous and hyper-sexualized black men terrorizing white women while their emasculated husbands looked on helplessly, it resonated with white voters and didn’t produce any noticeable backlash, at least not enough to overcome the benefit Bush got from repeating the story.

But if someone like Scott Walker or Jeb Bush tried to make Lopez-Sanchez the new Horton — a symbol of fear meant to get whites to pull the lever for the GOP — he would undermine all the party’s efforts to convince Hispanic voters that whatever the party’s history on immigration reform, it isn’t blatantly hostile to them. As Michael Gerson advised yesterday: “As the old Southern strategy fades, it would be a terrible mistake to replace it with a different form of fear and exclusion.”

So we’re left with a situation where most of the candidates will criticize sanctuary city policies and make a case for tougher border enforcement, but they’ll be doing it within a context created by their side’s media, the media the primary voters they’re trying to win over are watching and listening to every day. And the Lopez-Sanchez story is exactly the kind of tale that the conservative media feast on: personal, vivid, tragic, just waiting to have all the outrage and anger they can muster poured into it. While the candidates say, “Yes, this is terrible,” behind them will be the media figures Republican voters trust, screaming at the top of their lungs that everyone should be enraged.

In that way, this particular story is a microcosm of the Republican challenge on immigration. Caught between a base eagerly eating up the red meat conservative media are feeding them and a general electorate they can’t afford to alienate, they still haven’t quite figured out how to chart a path that avoids those dangers and gets them to the White House.