President Donald Trump referred to some people deported from the United States as “animals” during a roundtable discussion about California’s “sanctuary” law on Wednesday. After a California sheriff commented that her county is unable to notify ICE when an MS-13 gang member is in jail for a minor crime, Trump launched into a riff about “people trying to come in” and being deported who are “not people. They’re animals.” It’s the latest in a series of statements stretching over Trump’s entire national political career that carelessly conflate immigration, criminality, and violence.
From the official White House transcript:
SHERIFF (Margaret) MIMS (Fresno County, CA): Now ICE is the only law enforcement agency that cannot use our databases to find the bad guys. They cannot come in and talk to people in our jail, unless they reach a certain threshold. They can’t do all kinds of things that other law enforcement agencies can do. And it’s really put us in a very bad position.
THE PRESIDENT: It’s a disgrace. Okay? It’s a disgrace.
SHERIFF MIMS: It’s a disgrace.
THE PRESIDENT: And we’re suing on that, and we’re working hard, and I think it will all come together, because people want it to come together. It’s so ridiculous. The concept that we’re even talking about is ridiculous. We’ll take care of it, Margaret. We’ll win.
SHERIFF MIMS: Thank you. There could be an MS-13 member I know about — if they don’t reach a certain threshold, I cannot tell ICE about it.
THE PRESIDENT: We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in — and we’re stopping a lot of them — but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals. And we’re taking them out of the country at a level and at a rate that’s never happened before. And because of the weak laws, they come in fast, we get them, we release them, we get them again, we bring them out. It’s crazy.
It’s not clear whom the president was referring to — whether he was simply picking up on Sheriff Mims’s reference to MS-13 gang members or referring to deportees more broadly. But he didn’t exactly bend over backward to specify that not all immigrants deported by this administration are “animals.”
Trump has used the term “animals” to refer to members of MS-13 before. In a July 2017 speech to law enforcement officers on Long Island, he said: “Few communities have suffered worse at the hand of these MS-13 thugs than the people of Long Island. They have transformed peaceful parks and beautiful quiet neighborhoods into bloodstained killing fields. They are animals.” In February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he said, “These are animals. They cut people. They cut them. They cut them up in little pieces, and they want them to suffer. And we take them into our country.”
On Thursday, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders endorsed this interpretation of Trump’s remarks, saying that “I don’t think the term the president used was strong enough...it took an animal to stab a man 100 times and decapitate him and cut his heart out,” referring to a particularly gruesome murder committed by MS-13 gang members.
But in context, murderers and other serious criminals weren’t the people Trump was being asked about.
Sheriff Mims was specifically complaining that California state law prevents the county from notifying ICE about MS-13 gang members who have not been charged or convicted of serious crimes. The law in question allows county officials to notify ICE of a prisoner’s release date if the prisoner has been convicted of any felony within the last 15 years, or of certain misdemeanors within the last 5 years, or if the prisoner has been charged with a serious or violent crime and a magistrate has found probable cause. It allows county officials to transfer prisoners to ICE custody in any of those circumstances, or if a judge has signed a warrant or found probable cause that the prisoner has violated criminal immigration law.
Maybe the president didn’t understand Sheriff Mims’ comment and doesn’t understand the law that his administration convened the roundtable to complain about. Maybe he just heard the word “MS-13” and automatically launched into a riff he’s riffed before. Because the president spoke in scattered generalities, he didn’t make it clear exactly which humans he considers unhuman — something he could have taken pains to specify.
No matter how Trump is portraying his policy, his administration is not focusing on deporting people who have committed particularly heinous crimes, gang members, or people with criminal records. From Trump’s inauguration to the end of 2017, ICE arrested 45,436 immigrants without criminal records.
To be sure, ICE arrests of immigrants with criminal records ticked up slightly from the last year of the Obama administration (in which immigration enforcement was subdued compared to previous years) to the Trump administration. But arrests of immigrants without criminal records have also spiked. During President Obama’s last year, about 16 percent of ICE arrests were of noncriminal immigrants; each month since July 2017, between 32 and 40 percent of arrestees have been noncriminals.
The Trump administration is still deporting fewer noncriminal immigrants than the Obama administration did circa 2011, and the proportion of deportees who are noncriminals is usually smaller than the proportion of arrestees who are. But the Trump administration is aiming to not just ramp back up to the deportation peak of Obama’s first term but surpass it, and that’s going to require arresting and deporting a lot of immigrants without criminal records.
If Trump understands his own administration’s policy, he’s never acknowledged it in public. He sticks to the same rhetorical move every time: refer to some specific criminals, call them horrible people and animals, say that their evil justifies his immigration policy, and allow the conflation of all immigrants and all Latinos with criminals and animals to remain subtext.
This is who Donald Trump has been for his entire political career. The worst-case scenarios about his dehumanizing rhetoric — that they would foment large-scale mob violence or vigilantism against Latinos in the United States — have not been realized. But neither have any hopes that Trump, as president, might ever weigh his words with any care at all, especially when encouraging Americans to see human beings as less than human.