For the second time in his presidency, President Trump traveled to Long Island to talk about immigrants and crime. While the event in Bethpage, N.Y., was described as a “roundtable on immigration,” the chosen location, Trump’s opening comments and the assembled guests made clear that the focus was more specifically on the criminal gang MS-13 and tying their actions to immigrants more broadly.
In that sense, the event was perfectly fitting. The conversation was supposed to be about immigration, but Trump instead focused almost entirely on a subset of a subset of the immigrant population, some of whom are members of a gang and have committed violent crimes. But by returning to Long Island, he also highlighted how hollow that rhetoric actually is.
“We’re here today to discuss the menace of MS-13,” Trump said at the outset of his remarks. “It’s a menace, a ruthless gang that has violated our borders and transformed once-peaceful neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. Horrible people, by the way.”
He introduced the other people participating in the roundtable, including the family of two young women who were killed by MS-13 members.
“Their beautiful daughters were murdered by MS-13 gang members,” Trump said, “many of whom exploited glaring loopholes — and we have the biggest loopholes of any country anywhere in the world. We have the worst immigration laws of any country anywhere in the world — but they exploited the loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors.”
“They look so innocent,” he added. “They’re not innocent.”
Trump proceeded to describe, in great detail, crimes committed by MS-13 gang members including murders, rapes and the killing of a police officer.
“Crippling loopholes in our laws have enabled MS-13 gang members and other criminals to infiltrate our communities,” Trump said, “and Democrats in Congress refuse to close these loopholes, including the disgraceful practice known as ‘catch and release.’ … Democrats have to abandon their resistance to border security so that we can support law enforcement and save innocent lives.”
He then addressed the recent controversy over how he described MS-13 members.
“And I notice recently where Democrats — Nancy Pelosi as an example — are trying to defend MS-13 gang members,” he added. “I called them ‘animals’ the other day, and I was met with rebuke. They said, ‘They’re people.’ They’re not people. These are animals, and we have to be very, very tough.”
The roundtable was being held on Long Island because Trump has consistently argued that the region is in the grip of MS-13 violence, home to some of those “bloodstained killing fields” he mentioned at the outset. It’s why he was there in July and why he returned on Wednesday.
The term “killing fields” evokes the murders committed by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s. During a five-year period, nearly 1.4 million people were killed as part of a genocide. A photojournalist for the New York Times described that ongoing massacre using the evocative two-word phrase.
By contrast, there were 37 homicides in all of Nassau and Suffolk counties in 2017 — the entirety of Long Island east of New York City. That total was down from 59 the year before. The counties are home to 2.8 million people.
What’s more, one speaker during the roundtable noted that there had been 235 arrests of MS-13 beginning in late 2016 — and that there hadn’t been a murder linked to MS-13 in the county since April 2017.
When Trump was on Long Island in July, he linked MS-13’s crimes to the “more than 150,000 unaccompanied alien minors” who “arrived at the border and were released all throughout our country into United States’ communities” under President Barack Obama. A report from the anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies released in February, though, tallied 560 MS-13 members who had been charged with crimes since 2012 — all but about 35 of whom weren’t minors.
Nor were those MS-13 members all necessarily immigrants. Business Insider’s Christopher Woody reported on a 2017 statement from the head of the Border Patrol, who said that, of about 250,000 unaccompanied minors who entered the United States from 2011 to 2017, only 56 had a demonstrated or suspected affiliation with MS-13.
Notice, though, that Trump returned to this same idea, that the minors who had entered into the United States were dangerous.
“They look so innocent,” he said of the minors who arrived in a big wave several years ago. “They’re not innocent.”
The vast majority, of course, were innocent. Many came to the United States fleeing precisely the sort of gang violence that Trump would like Americans to believe they embraced on their arrival. But Trump’s own event makes clear that the problem of murderous immigrants running rampant in the region is overstated. Of course the murders he described are horrible, barbaric and shouldn’t have happened — that’s why he mentioned them.
He again tries to claim that his opponents are objecting to calling MS-13 “animals” because they are defending members of the gang. They aren’t, of course; they are objecting to the dehumanizing language of a group that Trump often deliberately uses as a proxy for the immigrant community. It’s savvy politics, though, to force your opponents to explain the nuance you’re skipping.
No one should stand with the actions of violent criminals. But Trump’s intentionally trying to dramatically expand the group of people who are painted with that brush so that Americans stand with as few immigrants as possible. That’s why he disparaged those unaccompanied minors as “not so innocent” — if you accept that most were innocent and seeking refuge, it becomes harder to see the urgency behind Trump’s anti-immigration policies.
Trump’s political rhetoric is raw and unsubtle. Letting in immigrants means letting in people who “are accused of stabbing a man 100 times, decapitating him and ripping out his heart,” an act he described as having been committed by an MS-13 gang member. It’s the same strategy he uses on terrorism: Some Muslims have committed acts of terrorism, therefore we must curtail immigration from heavily Muslim countries and drastically slow refugee resettlement.
The event on Wednesday was only a roundtable on immigration in the sense that Trump’s not subtle about his intentions. It was the equivalent of screening the movie “Cujo” as the sole component of a discussion about pet ownership.