Since taking office, President Donald Trump’s attack on immigrants has been relentless.
His full frontal assault began moments after he arrived at the bottom of Trump Tower’s faux solid-gold escalator on June 16, 2015, when he announced his unlikely run for the presidency. That’s the day he told the world the United States had become “a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.”
By “problems,” Trump meant human beings. Namely, dark-skinned people he regards as inferior in one way or another to the anxious and disgruntled, mostly white, bigoted multitudes who would come to make up the core of his voter base.
Trump’s immigration playbook was crystal clear: convince as many voters in the U.S. as possible that foreigners—Brown people in particular—were not only already pouring over our borders, but that our way of life, and even our very lives, were in peril.
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he said. “They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
“Some” he said, implying that the vast majority only mean us harm.
Mexicans were a convenient scapegoat for Trump, just as they have been for American xenophobes for most of the past 200 years. In the same way that Ronald Reagan reminded us in the 1980s that Marxist-led Nicaragua was just a two days’ drive to the U.S.-Mexico border—as if to say Nicaragua and its Soviet allies might be contemplating an invasion—Trump wanted us to believe the Mexican threat was real and geographically close at hand. He still does.
And so we didn’t forget that other countries populated by Brown people were also menacing, Trump took the opportunity to tell a television audience of millions that day: “It’s coming from more than Mexico. It’s coming from all over South and Latin America, and it’s coming probably—probably—from the Middle East.”
“Probably. Probably,” he said, offering a preview of what by now has become a familiar tactic by the president to indict by insinuation.
In truth, Mexicans and Middle Easterners have not posed a major domestic threat to us—the horrific attack on 9-11 notwithstanding. In general, immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, tend to commit crimes at a lower rates than people who were born here. As for acts of domestic terrorism, it is homegrown, right-wing extremists who are responsible for the vast majority of these types of killings in the United States.
“In 2019, domestic extremists killed at least 42 people in the United States in 17 separate incidents,” according to a report released in February by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center for Extremism, one of the world’s foremost authorities on extremism, terrorism, anti-Semitism and hate crimes.
“As is typically the case,” the report’s researchers found, “the extremist-related murders of 2019 were overwhelmingly (90%) linked to right-wing extremists … Extremist-related killings in 2019 were dominated by the white supremacist shooting spree at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas… which left 22 people dead and 24 more wounded.” The gunman in the El Paso attack told police he intended to kill Latinos. The mass shooting turned out to be “the deadliest attack in modern times” against Hispanics in the United States.
With the advent of the pandemic, Trump’s attack on immigrants has taken a new but equally sinister approach. For the past few months, the president has blocked virtually all immigration across the Mexico border claiming, without evidence, that immigrants bear blame for the spread of COVID-19 in the U.S. He did it again at a White House briefing on Wednesday.
It’s a ridiculous claim on its face. In the past few months, the United States has become the COVID-19 epicenter of the world, while Florida and each of our southern border states (with the exception of New Mexico) have seen record spikes in the spread of the coronavirus. That’s not because of Mexican immigrants (who don’t usually cross into Florida on their way north, unless they’re headed to Disneyworld), but thanks to Americans refusing to wear masks and congregating at bars, churches, businesses and beaches.
But protecting Americans from the “Brown hordes” has never been the president’s real objective, no matter what he claims. Whether he’s locking migrant children in cages or forcing Central American families to wait for months in squalid border shelters in Mexico for a chance to apply for asylum in the United States, or simply allowing migrant families to wallow in COVID-19 infected federal detention centers, Trump’s simple goal has always been to inflict maximum pain as publicly as possible on the people he wants his nationalist followers to believe are responsible for the erasure of huge swaths of whites in the American middle class.
Newsflash: It was the corporate outsourcing of American jobs to low-wage paying countries around the world that took those jobs, not immigrants to the United States.
But those facts, like most facts, mean nothing to Trump. The American Dream, according to the president, is being stolen by people who do not look like the folks who helped put him in the White House.
Yet Trump’s war on immigrants, and by extension his daily attacks on anyone he refuses to regard as fully American—Latinos, Blacks, Muslims, Asians, and, yes, even Native Americans—is ultimately doomed.
You see, the reason Trump cannot understand the role immigrants play in shaping and defining what it means to be an American is that he has never appreciated what this country has struggled so hard and, yes, so imperfectly to exemplify.
If you don’t believe me, go to a citizenship naturalization ceremony someday. Almost invariably, you’ll end up bearing witness to a room full of people of every skin tone, race, religion, ethnicity and socioeconomic background all sharing a singularly rare human experience: raw American pride, minus the jingoism.
People often cry at these ceremonies, even as their smiles—radiant, infectious, inspiring—stretch from ear to ear. Instead of wearing their pride on their sleeve, you get to see it in their eyes.
What they’re smiling about, I believe, is the promise, the ideal of a pluralistic democracy—not because they buy into the arrogant myth of American exceptionalism, but because they understand how long it’s taken us as a people to get even this far, knowing all the while just how hard they had to work to join us here.
In the end, what Trump is intellectually and morally incapable of understanding is that long after he’s gone immigrants will keep coming, keep dreaming, and keep helping make America as great as it will ever be.