On Monday, President Trump delivered a speech in tribute to officers of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP — though Trump kept pronouncing the acronym “CBC”). But Trump’s way of honoring the front-line agents enforcing his immigration agenda got a little weird when he ended up reassuring the audience that a Latino Border Patrol officer onstage with him “speaks perfect English.”
Trump was telling the story of a Border Patrol agent he identified as “Adrian” — subsequently identified by Jennifer Jacobs of Bloomberg as Adrian Anzaldua. He’s the agent who discovered 78 immigrants locked in the hold of a refrigerated truck in Laredo, Texas, in April. In the middle of telling his story, Trump decided to invite Anzaldua up to speak for himself. Anzaldua hesitated. And that’s when things got awkward.
Adrian, come here, I want to ask you a question. So — how did you —
Come here, c’mere.
You’re not nervous, are you?
[Trump turns to audience]
Speaks perfect English.
[Trump turns back to Anzaldua]
Anzaldua does, of course, speak perfect English. But why exactly did Trump feel the need to remark on Anzaldua’s English fluency to the audience, as if they might have been concerned or confused?
It is theoretically possible that Trump just says that someone “speaks perfect English” whenever they seem too shy to get up to speak (though I Googled quickly and couldn’t readily find any records of Trump using the phrase in the past).
But this is a man who impugned the impartiality of a federal judge because he was a Mexican American, and who reportedly interrupted an intelligence briefing to ask the staffer delivering the briefing “where are you from?” (and then, when told she was Korean-American, suggested reassigning the “pretty Korean lady” to work on North Korea). So a remark that a Latino Border Patrol agent “speaks perfect English” will seem to many people to be more patronizing racism from a president who has repeated problems seeing nonwhite Americans as Americans.
It’s not the intent; it’s the obliviousness. Most politicians would probably hesitate before using a stock line about speaking “perfect English” to refer to a visibly Latino agent with a Spanish surname. They would probably be doubly hesitant about doing this during an event about immigration policy. They would probably be quadruply hesitant about doing this during an event about immigration policy if their immigration agenda was widely criticized as racist toward Latinos.
The event honoring CBP and ICE was designed as a vehicle for the political message that Trump (and other Republicans) appear to believe will win them the midterm elections in 2018: Vote for Republicans in November or you will have no one to protect you from crime. It was designed to reinforce Trump’s preferred characterization of his immigration policy — that it’s about “law and order” — and crowd out accusations of overreach and racism.
But between the constant references to “CBC” and the weirdly patronizing comment about Anzaldua, the event left the distinct impression that the actual agents of ICE and CBP aren’t really the people Trump cares about.