For years immigrant rights groups have fought against the terms “illegal” and “illegal alien,” commonly deployed by Republicans and movement conservatives to refer to people who are in the country without authorization. We’ve argued the term strips us of our humanity. When Donald Trump began his presidential candidacy by calling Mexican immigrants “rapists”, we warned that derisive allusions to “illegals” had slipped into something more dangerous. Trump’s supporters argued he only meant “some” were criminals, that Trump acknowledged “some” of us are good people.
But predictably, each time the issue of undocumented immigrants has come up since his election—when he ended DACA, proposed warehousing immigrant minors on military bases, ended temporary protected status for migrants fleeing disasters—he has conflated black and latino immigrants with criminals and untouchables. When we recoiled at Trump for saying immigrants from Haiti, Nigeria, and El Salvador were from “shithole” countries, conservatives accused us of being snowflakes obsessed with political correctness. But Trump has made it painfully clear what he thinks of immigrants: “These aren’t people, they are animals.” He has spelled it out: we are not humans deserving of human rights. And his government is listening.
Trump’s racist scapegoating of immigrants, religious and ethnic minorities and others—his disparate treatment of crimes committed by whites and crimes committed by others—isn’t just offending the sensibilities of liberals. It’s infecting the DNA of his law enforcement apparatus, which is ruining the lives of innocent people, but only certain innocent people.
Daniel Ramirez Medina embodies the consequences of Trump’s conflation of immigrants with gang members. Government agents turned his life upside down because they, like Trump, have decided to treat most immigrants from south of the border as “animals.” Daniel spent his 24th birthday in a detention center last year after he was detained during an incidental interaction with law enforcement. Daniel was not on ICE’s radar. He is a DACA recipient and had undergone extensive background checks to keep his DACA permit, meaning the government knew he was not a criminal or a gang member. His DACA permit was supposed to protect him from deportation.
ICE came to Daniel’s home to arrest his father, who is undocumented. When the agents saw a tattoo on Daniel’s arm, they assumed he must be a gang member and swept him up, too. The President of United States couples undocumented immigrants with gang members all the time, so why wouldn’t ICE, whose very existence is predicated on the dubious need to protect citizens from immigrants, make the same assumption? Daniel’s DACA status was stripped away and he was placed into deportation proceedings.
Daniel wrote about his experience, “Agents interrogated me for hours and insisted I was a gang member, because I’m from the Central Valley. They are all gang members there, they told me.” But they didn’t just insist he was a gang member, they forged a “Classification Appeal” which they claimed Daniel filled out when he arrived at the detention center. Images of the document show part of Daniel’s statement had been erased. His full statement read, “I came in and the officers said I have affiliation with gangs so I wear an orange uniform. I do not have a criminal history and I’m not affiliated with any gangs.” But ICE officers deleted the words “I came in and the officers said,” creating the false impression he had confessed to gang membership. ICE was not able to produce any evidence of Daniel’s alleged gang affiliation.
Daniel’s rights were stripped away, he spent months locked up precisely because Trump has signaled to ICE that it is open season on undocumented immigrants—on “animals.” Fortunately, two different immigration judges found no evidence that Daniel presents a threat to public safety. One judge found ICE had stripped Daniel of his “constitutionally protected liberty and property interests without due process of law,” and ordered the federal government to reinstate his DACA protections.
The injustice Daniel suffered can’t be justified, and we know there will be more Daniels, some of whom will be deported before the wheels of justice finish turning.
Last year, Sally Smith detailed here how Trump’s dangerous speech has incited violence among his supporters and created a permission structure for foreign authoritarians to oppress their own people. It’s having the same effect within our own government.
This has been the plan all along; to make immigrants synonymous with criminals—to slowly dehumanize us until we can be equated with animals and have our human and civil rights stripped from us as a matter of routine. Words have power and fighting against the President’s appalling rhetoric is not a matter of political correctness, it’s a matter of justice.