For his first address to a joint session of Congress, Trump is returning to an old standby of his presidential campaign: “angel moms” and families, whose family members were killed by undocumented immigrants.
Jamiel Shaw Sr., who lost his teenage son in 2008 — and spoke at the Republican National Convention — will join first lady Melania Trump for the president’s speech, along with Jessica Davis and Susan Oliver, whose husbands, California police officers, died in the line of duty in 2014.
Shaw’s son was shot by two Hispanic men, one an undocumented gang member. Davis and Oliver are both widows of Sacramento law enforcement officers who were killed in a shooting and carjacking rampage by a twice-deported undocumented immigrant.
Unlike many politicians and past presidents, Trump rarely uses anecdotes of everyday Americans to drive home his political platforms, with the exception of military members and families who have in some way been negatively impacted by immigrants.
During the campaign, Trump on occasion would bring these “angel” families onstage to share their harrowing stories of loss — and voice their support for a “tough on immigration” presidential candidate. On Tuesday night they have a front-and-center seat to his first major legislative address.
The messaging is as clear as it was during the campaign: Trump is reminding his supporters of the Americans undocumented immigrants have hurt. The move is saying, Look at what "illegal aliens" have taken away, and be afraid of the danger these immigrants pose to your community and to your children.
These “angel” families are among the few everyday Americans whose stories Trump invokes
After a speech on immigration during his campaign, Trump gave the podium to a line of bereaved parents and relatives, their shirts plastered with the faces of lost loved ones.
"My son Ronald da Silva was murdered April 27, 2002, by an illegal alien who had been previously deported," one "angel mom," herself an immigrant, said. "And what makes me so outraged is that we came here legally. Thank you, Mr. Trump. I totally support you. You have my vote."
"My cousin Rebecca Ann Johnston — known as Becky — was murdered on January 1, 1989, in north Little Rock, Arkansas," another woman said. "If you don't vote Trump, we won't have a country. Trump all the way."
Trump hugged the mothers and shook hands with the fathers.
"These are amazing people. And I'm not asking for their endorsement. Believe me. That is tough stuff. Incredible people," Trump said. "Now is the time for all of us as one country — Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative — to band together to deliver justice and safety and security for all Americans. Let's fix this horrible, horrible problem. It can be fixed quickly."
A quick Google search will land you on AngelMoms.com, the website of an organization founded in 2000 as support group for mothers who have lost their children to any cause. But AngelMoms.com has nothing to do with Trump or the speakers featured in his campaign, the group insists. "It is very upsetting," Judi Walker, the founder of Angel Moms, told me in an email.
Trump’s "angel moms" have a different origin: They are from the Remembrance Project, a Texas-based nonprofit founded in 2009 that "advocates for families whose loved ones were killed by illegal aliens," according to its website. Its mission is to educate the public about “the epidemic of killings across the country, and [raise] awareness of the effects of illegal immigration."
For the Remembrance Project, and for Trump, "angel moms" is a "term used within the organization" to denote mothers who have lost children to incidents involving undocumented immigrants, Trump’s then-spokesperson Hope Hicks confirmed in an email during the campaign.
There are groups in a similar vein to the Remembrance Project across the country. Facebook pages, like California Victims of Illegal Aliens — dedicated to highlighting stories of Americans who have died due to "illegal aliens and foreign criminals in the U.S., especially those who have been killed by illegals” — aggregate news stories and statistics on immigration.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of the stories shared come from Breitbart, the far-right outlet that delivered Trump his chief strategist, Steve Bannon. There’s even a tag on Breitbart that pulls together all the "angel moms" stories in one place.
"Angel" families are core to Trump’s immigration message
Framing immigration as an us-against-them debate has worked well for Trump. It’s a message that has been finely tuned throughout his campaign, and resulted in a push for a southern border wall and the executive order, now stalled in court, that banned refugees and visa holders from seven majority-Muslim nations.
For Trump, these bereaved families are the perfect messengers for his strict immigration policies.
It’s a narrative that Breitbart has long been telling — describing immigration through a lens of crime. Regardless of the fact that immigrants are statistically less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, the "angel moms" give real human voices to Trump’s message — one that until now has been based less in policy than in an emotional appeal.
Some Republican congressional leaders are familiar with the stories. House Speaker Paul Ryan was once confronted by a group of four mothers who had "lost children at the hands of illegal immigrants" at his Janesville, Wisconsin, home, trying to make the case for stronger borders.
Now Americans with similar stories will be sitting in the same room as him.