On Friday morning, an email was sent to reporters from the Director of Surrogate & Coalitions Outreach for the Office of Communications at the White House. It was titled Immigration Crime Stories Round Up: Week of February 4th and included nine clips from news articles meant to show evidence of criminal behavior by immigrants in the United States.
Before we dig into the content of the email, it is worth establishing a bit of context. It has been apparent for more than a year that the Trump administration sought to use the power of the White House to push out negative stories linking immigrants to crime. Shortly after Trump took office, he announced the creation of an office within the Department of Homeland Security called VOICE — Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement office. The ostensible goal, first articulated in a memo from then-Homeland Security head John F. Kelly, was to give a voice to those who suffered at the hands of “criminal aliens” who “routinely victimize Americans and other legal residents.” On a quarterly basis, the president promised, VOICE would release assessments of that victimization.
Immediately, people noted the similarity between that effort and another notorious system of publicizing wrongdoing by a targeted group: The Nazi tactic of including stories about Jewish criminals in material the party published. The Washington Post’s Amanda Erickson has noted that “a regular government report is a far cry from the Nazis’ aggressive, constant drumbeat against the Jews.”
What arrived on Friday morning, though, was not a quarterly report on crime. It was an attempt to depict immigrants as criminals broadly.
As it turns out, there is plenty of research into the question of whether immigrants are more likely to commit crime: They are not. First-generation immigrants (those who were born in other countries) are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans. That is all immigrants, but there is also no indication those here illegally are more likely to commit crimes than those born in America.
Anyway, the distinction drawn in Kelly’s memo between legal and illegal immigrants is abandoned in this email from the Coalitions Outreach director. There are nine stories included in the email, the first two of which address immigrants in the country legally. (The stories are about two people who entered through immigration programs Trump has targeted as dangerous.) Several other stories deal with immigrants in the country illegally, including one story about someone who overstayed a legal visa.
All of that aside, the most revealing articles are two that were included from The Post.
Last summer, Trump traveled to Long Island to excoriate the scourge of MS-13, a gang associated with the Salvadoran community that was founded in Los Angeles in the 1980s. There had been a spate of violence associated with the gang in the area, and Trump was quick to link that violence to MS-13 and link MS-13 to immigrants and link immigrants to crime broadly. He pointed to 42 people who had been implicated in violent activity through MS-13, which he implied was representative of a group of 150,000 people who had entered the country under former president Barack Obama.
So the “immigrant crime” email included two articles from The Post about MS-13 activity. The first was a story titled, “‘Vying for control’: How MS-13 uses violence and extortion in America’s jails.” The other was titled, “Stabbing of 16-year-old Md. student was MS-13 related, prosecutors said.”
The latter article details a violent incident at a school in Maryland in which several students tried to rob another student, resulting in the victim being shot after a struggle. The State’s Attorney who linked the event to MS-13 did not explain that link, but the two teenagers arrested, Zanaya Bryant, 17, and Anthony Hollingsworth, 18, are not described anywhere as immigrants from El Salvador — or anywhere else.
The former article describes broadly the process by which MS-13, like other gangs, struggles for control in penal institutions. Reporter Michael Miller speaks with two inmates from El Salvador but also describes violent activity by other prison gangs not associated with an immigrant community.
In other words, MS-13 is simply used as a proxy for “immigrant crime,” even if the association with MS-13 is tenuous and those involved are not shown to be immigrants. As Trump himself argued on Long Island, MS-13’s criminal activity simply becomes “immigrant crime” that the American public needs to know about.
In addition to the reports above and one about a Trump policy proposal, the email details three violent incidents that occurred this week. One was the incident in Maryland that is not clearly connected to immigrants. The other two — the killing of an NFL player in a car accident and a stabbing — were linked to men in the country illegally.
In 2016 there were 1.2 million violent crimes, or 23,077 a week. If that number held last week, the White House only found two crimes linked to immigrants in the country illegally, meaning native-born Americans committed the other 23,075.
Not to fear-monger or anything.