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It’s not just rhetoric: Trump’s policies treat immigrants like me as “animals”

Trump’s rhetoric and agencies like ICE immigration enforcement dehumanize immigrants.

US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers prepare for morning operations to arrest undocumented immigrants on April 11, 2018, in New York City.
John Moore/Getty Images

“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.”

This is what President Trump said on Wednesday during a roundtable meeting with top officials of his administration and California politicians to discuss California’s new “sanctuary” law. It’s a little unclear whether these “animals” he was referencing were undocumented immigrants as a whole, as he seemed to imply, or specifically members of the MS-13 gang, which was the subject of some previous questions. Regardless, the comments went viral: Without missing a beat, the internet and the media were swift to castigate Trump over his deplorable remarks.

I’m an immigration advocate and a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. I’ve been following the Trump administration’s words and actions closely on immigration issues because my future depends on it. The “animals” comments are nothing new: Trump has consistently dehumanized immigrants as a group, comparing all of us to rapists and gang members from the earliest days of his campaign.

The ambiguity — whether Trump was dehumanizing gang members or all undocumented immigrants — is predictably being exploited by conservative politicians, including Trump himself, and pundits who make the case that the “fake news” media is being unfair to the president.

But that argument fails to recognize that whether Trump meant MS-13 gang members or immigrants as a whole doesn’t really matter: In his eyes, and in the directives that have shaped his policies, they are one and the same. Equating these groups is impacting real lives — Trump officials do it in their rhetoric, and they do it in their policies.

In February of last year, in the early days of the Trump administration, Seattle resident and DACA recipient Daniel Ramirez Medina was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. The reason for his arrest was a single tattoo on his forearm: a star circled by the words “La Paz - BCS.” ICE argued that the tattoo, which Ramirez explained was a reference to his birthplace, La Paz, in Baja California Sur, demonstrated that the young immigrant was somehow connected to gang activity.

This was proof enough for ICE to not only arrest but interrogate and detain Ramirez and strip him of his DACA benefits. ICE agents threatened to deport him immediately and reportedly asked him “five to seven times” if he was involved in gang activity. When he said he had a permit to legally work in the United States, an agent reportedly told him, “It doesn’t matter because you weren’t born in this country.”

This Tuesday, nearly a year after his arrest, a federal judge rejected all claims by ICE agents and federal government about Ramirez’s presumed gang activity. In fact, US District Judge Ricardo S. Martinez concluded that the government’s actions taken against Ramirez — which included a doctored statement that ICE submitted on behalf of Ramirez to support their claim that he was connected to gang activity — were “arbitrary and capricious.”

Judge Martinez instructed the federal government to grant Ramirez his DACA benefits once again and to stop lying (specifically, to stop “asserting, adopting, or relying in any proceedings on any statement or record … purporting to allege or establish that Mr. Ramirez is a gang member, gang affiliated, or a threat to public safety”) when attempting to deport immigrants.

There’s also the story of Henry, a young undocumented immigrant from Long Island who confided in law enforcement about the activities of MS-13 in hopes of obtaining some sort of protection after leaving the gang. As ProPublica reported, Henry’s decision to work with the authorities led to his arrest by ICE and possible deportation. Henry currently sits in detention alongside MS-13 members who likely suspect that he was a police informant, putting him at further risk.

These stories exemplify the extent to which the Trump administration’s unshackling of immigration agents brutally impacts people’s lives. Since Trump took office, advocates warn that there’s been a surge in ICE arrests of supposed MS-13 members — even though, advocates argue, many of the people arrested are not actually connected to gang activity.

Trump’s rhetoric, in which he has repeatedly painted immigrants as “murderers, rapists, and drug dealers,” adds to this dehumanization.

Trump has vilified immigrants and their contributions every step of the way

During the most recent immigration fight, in which Democrats wanted to pass DREAM Act legislation to protect people like me, Trump told the media not to “fall into the trap” of referring to young undocumented immigrants as “DREAMers,” implying that because of our lack of immigration status, we were still “illegals” in his eyes.

Trump launched his campaign by lambasting Mexican immigrants coming to the United States as rapists and drug dealers. This vile line found its way into the rhetoric of Republican hardliners running for state office in recent months. In Georgia, there are two gubernatorial candidates arguing who has the biggest vehicle to deport illegal “criminals.”

This week at the California roundtable, was the president referring to MS-13 gang members, not “illegal” immigrants, as animals? This is what the administration wants us to be debating, but at this point, can anyone really believe a statement that trades one insult for another? Why are some media outlets like the Associated Press bowing to Trump’s meaningless clarification as to whom exactly he called “animals?”

It is time to stop pretending that he has a “heart” for DREAMers — as he has repeatedly said — or that he sees immigrants in anything other than the most negative possible light. Trump has shown us the racist and xenophobe he is from the beginning. It is time we take him at his word.

Juan Escalante is a nationally recognized immigrant rights advocate and a beneficiary of President Obama’s 2012 DACA program. A Florida State University graduate, Escalante has been commended for his digital prowess and his ability to launch campaigns that highlight the struggles immigrants face across the United States. You can follow Juan’s work on Twitter at @JuanSaaa or by reading his HuffPost columns.

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