Trump’s allies may believe that sneaking into the United States, or using a fake social security number to get a job, predisposes people to rob, rape, or kill. But the evidence does not bear this out. So if Trump’s goal is increasing public safety, publishing a list of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants is irrational. It’s like publishing a list of crimes committed by people with red-hair.
If, however, Trump’s goal is stigmatizing a vulnerable class of people, then publicizing their crimes—and their crimes alone—makes sense. It’s been a tactic bigots have used more than a century.
Using crime to incite hatred has a long history in the United States. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, a professor of history, race, and public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, notes that for at least a century after the end of slavery, northern newspapers generally identified African Americans accused of committing crimes as “negro” or “colored.” Southern newspapers generally referred to the offender as a “negro criminal” in bold—using the individual’s name and “the negro” interchangeably in the story. White criminals, by contrast, were not identified by race. (This tradition continues at Breitbart, which has a special category for “black crime.”)
Government crime statistics reflected ethnic and racial fears too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, notes Muhammad, when native-born Americans were growing alarmed by mass immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, big city police forces broke down crime statistics by European nationality: Russian, German, Italian, etc. As nativist fears receded following the shutdown of such immigration, the FBI began lumping all European nationalities into the category “foreign born” beginning in 1930. By 1940, the European foreign born were subsumed into “white.”
In The Nazi Conscience, Duke historian Claudia Koonz notes that the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer ran a feature called “Letter Box,” which published readers’ accounts of Jewish crimes. When the Nazis took power, the German state began doing something similar. Frustrated by the failure of most Germans to participate in a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, Adolf Hitler’s government began publicizing Jewish crime statistics as a way of stoking anti-Semitism. In Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, the historian Saul Friedlander notes that, until 1938, Hitler’s Ministry of Justice ordered prosecutors to forward every criminal indictment against a Jew so the ministry’s press office could publicize it.
Trump’s defenders might claim that what he’s doing differs from these prior examples. He’s publicizing the crimes of a legal group—illegal immigrants—not a religious, ethnic, or racial one. But in the United States in 2017, talking about “illegal immigrants” is like talking about “welfare mothers” or “crack dealers” in 1987. The racial implication is clear. Trump made it so himself in his announcement speech when he said that, “When Mexico sends its people…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”