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The slippery slope of the Trump administration’s political embrace of calling MS-13 ‘animals’

On May 17, President Trump responded to a question from a reporter on remarks he had made the previous day about the deportation of MS-13 gang members. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Monday morning, the White House press office released a remarkable statement detailing violent crimes allegedly committed by members of the criminal gang MS-13. That alone isn’t remarkable; President Trump has been railing against MS-13 for months, using it as a foil to bolster his rhetoric about the risk posed by immigrants to the United States.

What was remarkable about the statement was the White House’s enthusiastic embrace of the term “animals” to describe those alleged gang members. Over the course of 480 words, the subjects of the statement were described as gang members nine times and as “animals” 10 times. The statement was direct about its aim, titled, “What You Need To Know About The Violent Animals Of MS-13.”

Trump’s use of the term during a meeting at the White House last week — by no means the first time he described immigrant groups as “animals” — spurred widespread condemnation, given the historic connotations of equating groups of people with animals. His use of the term nearly as rapidly inspired a defense from his allies, who both took issue with what they argued was an overly broad interpretation of what Trump said and that members of violent criminal gangs didn’t deserve to be described in more generous terms.

Both of those arguments had political benefits. In the first case, Trump’s defenders were able to cast the media as biased for, in some commentary, not explaining the broader context of the discussion in which Trump was participating. In the second, they sought to cast Trump’s opponents as allies of members of MS-13, the transitive, enemy-of-my-enemy property of political argument. It was clearly in that spirit that the White House statement was released, a new front in the thumb-in-the-liberals’-eye manner that quickly trickled down from the president to his team and his allies. If Trump’s opponents object to dehumanizing MS-13, then we will dehumanize members of MS-13 as eagerly as possible.

The problem with that language and with turning it into the same sort of politicultural fight that we see with, say, kneeling in the NFL is that Trump’s rhetoric about MS-13 is not now or ever has really been about MS-13. Instead, it’s directly about the threat posed by immigrants to the United States, an argument that took another form in the very first minutes of his presidential campaign, when he called some immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists. The idea has been to use specific examples of bad actors within or associated with the immigrant community as avatars for that community on the whole and to then enact policies that target immigrants broadly.

There are any number of examples, but one of the most obvious is the ban on immigration from certain countries. The threat of terrorism in the United States is small, but the administration advocated a sweeping ban on a certain class of immigrants ostensibly aimed at reducing that further. People from several primarily Muslim countries were swept up in the ban based on the threat Trump implied that they posed to the country.

Trump uses MS-13 the same way. In both literal and figurative terms, the gang is used as a large bucket into which people and groups are placed for political purposes even when it may not be an accurate descriptor. And that’s part of the challenge with Trump’s embrace of casting MS-13 as “animals”: Some of those “animals” aren’t even members of MS-13.

We see this rhetorically in Trump’s speech on Long Island last year. We noted this last week, but it’s worth highlighting one section in particular.


“The previous administration enacted an open-door policy to illegal migrants from Central America. ‘Welcome in. Come in, please, please.’ ”
“As a result, MS-13 surged into the country and scoured, and just absolutely destroyed, so much in front of it. New arrivals came in, and they were all made recruits of each other, and they fought with each other, and then they fought outside of each other. And it got worse and worse, and we’ve turned that back.”
“In the three years before I took office, more than 150,000 unaccompanied alien minors arrived at the border and were released all throughout our country into United States’ communities — at a tremendous monetary cost to local taxpayers and also a great cost to life and safety.”

There’s the skip of the stone: MS-13 is dangerous, the group “surged” into America “as a result” of the Obama administration’s embrace of an “open-door policy” that led to a spike in immigrants entering the country — a number that hit 150,000.

If we cut the middle transitions out — which is the point — what Trump is saying is that there is some subset of a massive population of people who are so depraved and dangerous as to be animals necessitating a massive and occasionally violent response. Remember, this was the same speech where Trump advocated police letting criminal suspects hit their heads on police cars and suggested that his immigration enforcers had to out-tough the alleged criminals.

“How tough are these guys, MS-13?” Trump asked of his director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “He said, ‘They’re nothing compared to my guys. Nothing.’ And that’s what you need. Sometimes that’s what you need, right?”

Meanwhile, ICE has been busy deporting immigrants with Trump’s blessing. Trump has often talked about how his administration is focused on deporting criminal immigrants, but his numbers on deportations of MS-13 members have consistently been inflated. Trump wants to see deportations of gang members, and ICE wants to comply, but the total seems lower than the “thousands” figure that Trump has presented, according to Washington Post analysis.

ICE has also been accused of inflating the affiliations of people accused of being gang members. Last year, 32 young people accused of being affiliated with MS-13 and arrested by ICE were let go after the ACLU successfully argued to the court that their purported gang affiliations were unfounded.

“Arrests were based on nothing more than a third-hand report from an unidentified local police officer that a child was wearing a certain article of clothing or was seen with certain people,” ACLU attorney William Freeman told NPR.

Other advocates for immigrant groups echo that concern. One, who worked for a group on Long Island, told Newsweek last year that “we’ve seen young people labeled as gang members because they are wearing a T-shirt and a teacher at a school who is not a trained expert thought they overheard something.”

Why would ICE inflate gang affiliations? One immigration official offered a reason to CBS News’s Margaret Brennan last year.

“So his known crime is entering the country illegally?” Brennan asked.
“Correct,” Molina said.
“But that’s it at this point, that’s all you definitely know?” Brennan asked.
“That’s correct. The purpose of classifying him as a gang member or a gang associate is because once he goes in front of an immigration judge, we don’t want him to get bail, because the whole point of this operation is to get these known gang members off the street,” Molina said.

That’s the slippery slope. For political reasons, Trump has an incentive to dehumanize people he accuses as being part of MS-13. For law enforcement reasons, ICE has reasons to broaden its assessment of who’s actually in the gang. For other political reasons, the administration has reasons to link immigrants broadly as being associated with the worst criminal elements of MS-13.

Making the statement from the White House on Monday remarkable — to understate it significantly.