“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” Donald Trump said at his campaign kickoff in June 2015. He was already off script, about two minutes into his remarks.
It was what he said next, though, that came to define his candidacy. It was instantly contentious, spurring huge media attention that helped fuel the first few weeks of his campaign.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” Trump said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people. But I speak to border guards and they tell us what we’re getting. And it only makes common sense.”
This casual comment, implying that the majority of immigrants crossing into the United States from Mexico were criminals, kicked off a firestorm of protest. Trump wasn’t yet considered a serious presidential candidate, so the response was what you might see if some other celebrity said something that could be interpreted as racially insensitive. Sponsors dropped deals; business partners walked away.
Trump leveraged that backlash to draw attention to his unusually hard line on immigration. Within weeks, he was standing on a stage before thousands of supporters in Maricopa County, Ariz. — home of then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a fervent critic of undocumented immigrants — championing the idea that immigrants from Mexico were inextricably linked with a crime problem in the United States.
It took less time than that for Trump’s assertion to be debunked. Immigrants commit crime at lower rates than native-born Americans, as a number of news articles pointed out after Trump’s campaign launch. A study from the University of California noted that this held true for immigrants from countries where much of the undocumented immigrant population originates.
On Wednesday, speaking to the White House press corps as part of the regular news briefing, Thomas Homan, the acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — an agency now under the control of President Trump — was asked whether immigrants in the country illegally were more likely to commit crimes.
He suggested that they weren’t.
Homan was describing a number of crimes that had been committed by immigrants in the United States and advocated for building a wall on the border with Mexico.
“Aren’t you concerned, though, about exacerbating fears about undocumented immigrants?” CNN’s Jim Acosta asked. “You’re making it sound as if undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than people who are just native-born Americans.”
“What is your sense of the numbers on this? Are undocumented people more likely or less likely to commit crimes?” Acosta asked.
“Did I say aliens commit more crimes than U.S. citizens? I didn’t say that,” Homan replied. (He did note that such immigrants had committed one crime: entering the country illegally.)
That’s a starkly different response than the one Trump employed. During the early days of his campaign, Trump ferociously defended his assertion that immigrants were linked to crime, pointing to articles such as this one that described the prevalence of rape among women and girls immigrating into the United States. When CNN’s Don Lemon challenged Trump on his claims, Trump implied that the perpetrators of the crime were other immigrants coming into the country. “Someone’s doing the raping, Don,” Trump said. (An Amnesty International report described the criminals as being “criminal gangs, people traffickers, other migrants or corrupt officials.”)
The idea that immigrants in the country illegally were inextricably linked with crime was embedded deeply in Trump’s candidacy. He would bring parents of children killed by undocumented immigrants onto the stage during his rallies and appeared with them at news conferences. When a San Francisco woman named Kate Steinle was shot to death by a man who’d repeatedly been deported, she became a central figure in his rhetoric.
It worked. Trump won last November in part because he won the vote of those who considered immigration the most serious issue facing the country — 13 percent of voters — by a 2-to-1 margin.
He’s continued to link immigrants to crime since being inaugurated. He invited relatives of people killed by immigrants in the country illegally to sit in the audience at his address to Congress. On Tuesday, the White House championed H.R. 3004, Kate’s Law — legislation named after Steinle that would increase penalties on those arrested in the United States after being deported.
Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order calling for the creation of an ICE department called VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement. The goal? To “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens” and to “provide quarterly reports studying the effects of the victimization by criminal aliens present in the United States.” That latter charge drew comparisons to Nazi Germany, given that the German government under Adolf Hitler published statistics about crimes committed by Jewish people.
Homan is hardly an apologist for immigrants in the country illegally. As he noted at the news briefing, he attracted a lot of media attention earlier this month for warning immigrants that they should fear his organization.
“If you’re in this country illegally and you committed a crime by entering this country, you should be uncomfortable,” he said. “You should look over your shoulder.”
Yet Homan declined to say that those immigrants were more likely to engage in criminal activity than American citizens were.
After the White House briefing, reporters were taken to an event being led by Trump. In it, the president introduced a number of people who had lost family members to undocumented immigrants, including some who had been regulars on the campaign trail.
“They’ve had members of their families killed by illegal immigrants and people in some cases with multiple deportations,” Trump said, according to a pool report. “I’m especially honored to be here with so many courageous families.”
He then assured them that their loved ones hadn’t died in vain.